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BCIT construction school tackles fall classes in COVID’s shadow

Warren Frey
BCIT construction school tackles fall classes in COVID’s shadow
BCIT — BCIT School of Construction and the Environment electrical student Maria Clarke works outside at a socially distanced station, one of the many new approaches the school is taking to keep teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of British Columbia’s leading construction educators is building new trades training methods both online and in a much-changed classroom setting.

British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) School of Construction and the Environment dean Wayne Hand said the lessons learned at the start of the pandemic have informed how the school is handling its approach as it goes into the fall.

Both academic and trades programs had to adapt to the new reality and Hand said his department tried to make the transition as smooth as possible given the circumstances.

“We have a number of technical programs and even degrees related to construction and they had five to six weeks left in their term. Those programs are more academic and less hands on, so it was easier for them to finish the term by going online,” Hand said. “Easier, but I wouldn’t say easy.”

Hand described adapting as a two-day disruption where the department stayed ahead of the schedule “as best they could” but he found the students receptive to their efforts to the crisis.

“For trades, however, it was a lot more challenging,” Hand said. “Our electrical program is a huge program to begin with, with thousands of students going through the program. Because of the content we were able to transition online right away.

“We put simulators in place that allowed students to access equipment remotely from home and we didn’t have any scheduling stops.”

Many other construction disciplines such as the piping trades, carpentry, joinery and other programs required an in-class component.

“There was a pause of a couple of weeks where we had to think through how much can be online whereas how much we do in class to meet proper training competencies. How do they come back and do the hands-on component? It varies trade to trade,” Hand said.

The department decided on a mix of online study and practical work, but with modifications to classroom practices.

“With the carpentry group that meant reducing the number of classes on campus at any one time by quite a bit. Apprentice classes are still going, but with space for 100 students, we’re now looking at 32 students each with their own work area, tools and material. We minimize interaction between students and reduce common touch points,” Hand said.

He said the school also borrowed ideas from the industry such as worksite handwashing standards and increasing the number of handwashing stations.

While Hand stressed the importance of reducing class sizes as a public health issue, he acknowledged it may create a bottleneck for an industry already heading towards a skills shortage.

“We recognize the demand is huge and that’s why we did push to get back up and running,” he said.

In addition to reduced class sizes, students are also required to participate in an online session about COVID-19 safety.

“We also do daily toolbox meetings where we go over protocols on how to conduct ourselves while on campus,” Hand said.

Collaborative projects have also been scaled back.

Before the pandemic, carpentry students would work together on framing a building, now “we’ve had to rework all that so they have individual projects to work on,” he explained.

An advantage the school has over other fields of study is that much of construction can take place outside.

“We have a lot of covered areas that are open to the air, and that part is easier to handle than classrooms,” Hand said.

The school also offers construction courses that lend themselves well to online study, Hand said.

“There are other aspects of construction outside the trades such as estimating, AutoCAD and construction management and that’s offered as well. They’ve all moved online and the enrolment numbers are good,” he said.

Hand also pointed to the online coursework as a resource the school will be able to draw upon after the pandemic runs its course.

“Now that the online learning is there as a resource students can go back and visit it whenever they want and that’s an added value that will be retained. We’ve also had feedback from out-of-town students who can now minimize the time they have to come into Vancouver, so there’s the value of that side of it as well.”

Hand also expressed hope both for the continued health of both education and the construction industry even as the pandemic continues.

“Under these conditions there are still some people who’ve decided they need to upgrade and develop new skills and people haven’t stopped coming back to school. We’re still here, the doors are open and we’ve maintained the quality of what we do here,” Hand said.

Below are two videos from BCIT covering the carpentry program’s response to COVID-19 and an example of online learning for the zero energy building course. 

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