Industrial simulation: developing skills
23 November 2018
Industrial simulation is a valuable way for students to develop the practical skills employers expect of them, as Simon McLean details in the 2nd of a series on issues relevant to building surveying degrees
Educational wisdom has it that knowledge gained through practical activity and personal research is often better retained. All stakeholders in building surveying education therefore like degree courses that provide academic and vocational knowledge plus vocational skills training.
In simple terms, graduates want to enter practice already able to undertake basic surveying tasks. RICS prefers this, while such skills are often prized by employers and are therefore advocated by universities.
Placement employers, too, are often looking for students arriving with practical skills and vocational knowledge. Students who embraced practical activities during the first 2 years of their studies tend to find placements first, often receiving multiple offers.
Academic courses set academic standards and learning outcomes at all levels of teaching. Although learning outside the classroom encourages development of practical skills, students need to be as well supported as they are in the classroom.
One way of achieving this is by using industrial simulation, where an activity is designed to run under industrial conditions, often with the support of an industrial partner. It requires the students to undertake tasks that simulate those undertaken in practice.
Industrial simulation that uses an enquiry-based pedagogy is practised on the Building Surveying BSc at the University of Salford. My experience of running these activities over a couple of decades shows that the more realistic the simulation, the better the levels of student engagement. The tutor needs to exercise control over the material studied in such simulations, and they can do this by creative brief writing.
In building surveying terms, this would mean writing an instruction that requires the student to research material on which they would otherwise only have been lectured, or develop practical skills based on knowledge previously taught to them.
One example of a simple building surveying simulation would be to source an unoccupied house and then ask students to undertake a survey of it using an RICS template.
This would develop their practical site-surveying skills as well as basic pathology and report-writing abilities. The tutor could then add a profile for the client raising the instruction: now, the activity no longer requires the student simply to observe and photograph the property and report in professional language, but to evaluate and record every observation in a way that focuses on the needs of that client.
The tutor could add that the client is a supporter of energy efficiency, requiring students to research energy-saving measures and renewable energy sources, and assess their practicality in the property with that client’s resources.
The tutor could also incorporate targeted building pathology by choosing a property with identified defects instead of using a generic house. By adding a proposal for a loft conversion or extension, for example, they could also engage students in issues related to planning, building control, structural performance and construction, design, and management.
Other concerns could be addressed by using, for instance, a listed Victorian building located near water and trees, which would bring in the issues of conservation, biodiversity and the possible need for environmental protection, while converting a ground-floor room into a commercial therapy area would require students to consider accessibility under the Equality Act 2010 and possibly the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013.
By skilful manipulation of the brief, a simple building survey can become the vehicle for teaching any number of vocational skills and academic outcomes.
Some vital building surveying skills such as contract administration are quite difficult to simulate without a tutor having control over a live construction project. Certain tasks in the contract administrator’s role – such as site meetings and inspections, and the application of contract terms to a given scenario – may be simulated, however, if industry can offer access to suitable sites.
In the context of teaching practical building surveying modules, using assessment methods such as a written essay misses a trick. While this is a perfectly good way of demonstrating students’ achievement of academic outcomes, it offers little by way of added value to the whole education experience.
If the same evidence can be presented in the form of a commonly used report or document, then its completion in an industry-approved language does add value to the submission because students doing so then have evidence of their skills in surveying to show to a prospective employer.
Some such outputs at the University of Salford have been noted as being of better quality than those that are commercially available – not because the students are more skilled or knowledgeable than practising surveyors, but because they can spend more time completing the report.
Engaged students can access examples of practice reports that are already good and make them better: it is then much easier subsequently to pare back excellent work to fit a commercial time frame than it is to bring work up to a commercially acceptable level.
Scope of works
A commonly used tool for commercial simulations run at the University of Salford is preparation of a scope of works to procure remedial works for elements of disrepair noted during the surveying simulation. This requires descriptions of disrepair, and understanding of the causes of the deterioration and complementary defects. For instance, if a student were required to procure works to repair timber decay then they could also procure works to repair the roof that is allowing the timbers to become damp in the first place, which would evidence their understanding of cause and consequence. A scope of works will also need to demonstrate the student’s ability to select and describe suitable repair methods.
A scope of works is an industry-used document written in an accepted form of language, and requires a degree of knowledge of contract and statutory obligation. Being written for a client, that client’s profile affects the replacement, repair or consolidation proposed – and for some, whether a disrepair needs work at all, given that different clients’ attitudes to non-critical property defects will vary.
Submission is an essential part of the simulation. It maintains the realism of the process, and the manipulation of the brief provides evidence of students meeting the required outcomes, both academic and vocational.
Taking learning outside the classroom requires control of the learning material and support for students. The method of controlling material has already been established, but if students are not supported adequately then, despite advantages in terms of vocational experience, the possibility of individual disadvantage might mean industrial simulation is an unacceptable risk.
This support is known in education as scaffolding – a term for a purpose that surveyors in particular should understand. Anyone thinking of running industrial simulation or any form of site-based activity needs to have such supporting methodology well established first.
This needs to be in place for those students who find themselves confused, alienated or just too far outside their comfort zone. Industrial simulation therefore requires the following considerations to be made.
In a classroom the tutor is in visible control; in enquiry-based learning, though, their role becomes one of facilitator, because if they remain visibly in control it can dilute the realism of the simulation.
The tutor must therefore have a discreet role in the simulation but be available to support students who are clearly struggling, help resolve any queries, steer learning, and answer technical questions. They must also be present to step in if a student is operating equipment incorrectly, and be available to monitor health and safety issues. My experience is that support requirements diminish as the simulation progresses, and the role adopted must allow for this.
Successful support requires students to arrive on site with all the knowledge required to perform the tasks. Identification of that knowledge by tutors, whether imparted by lectures or self-preparation, is essential. A student told as part of the simulation that they are a newly graduated surveyor will not engage unless they feel ready to simulate that role. Preparation is central to successful industrial simulation.
In site-based activity, health and safety is paramount. Before going on site, all building surveying students at the University of Salford receive a copy of the same method statement template that large practices must complete before any of their surveyors enters a site. This reinforces both the importance of health and safety issues and realism, as it is a genuine document used by the industry.
To conclude, industrial simulation can offer significant benefits to students, but needs to be creatively designed, meticulously planned and rigorously supported if it is to be successful.
Simon McLean MRICS is Programme Director, BSc and MSc Building Surveying, at the School of the Built Environment, University of Salford