UK Construction Online talk to Jennifer Macdonald about BIM, women in construction and educating the construction workers of the future.
Jennifer is a BIM Researcher, Consultant and Lecturer in Construction Project Management at the University of Technology Sydney and is currently working towards a PhD, developing frameworks for improving collaboration among students of the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) disciplines, with the aid of BIM technologies.
She has worked as a structural engineer in the UK and Australia on such projects as Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport, the Adelaide Entertainment Centre and various specialist structural glass and finite element analysis projects.
What age were you when you realised you had an interest in construction?
I took an interest in the construction industry when I was very young. I actually have a fairly famous ancestor who was an Architect from Glasgow called Alexander “Greek” Thomson. He was my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather and is quite well known in Glasgow. I remember as a child going to the art gallery and seeing a bust of him and being quite impressed by that and looking at some of his buildings.
At school I liked drawing; at primary school I remember drawing the school building. We did classics in first year at secondary school and I used to like drawing classical buildings so I don’t know if I got this from my ancestor!
From an early age, I used to like building Hornby train sets and creating the little buildings like the station house. I liked toys like that allowed you to create and build things, and art sets to draw and design and create with.
Did you play with Lego or similar block building toys?
I liked Duplo and also played with K’NEX style sets. I did like playing with a dolls house as a child but it was more about the building and layouts of furniture that went in it than the dolls that lived inside it! So I guess there was always that interest in how things work and the science behind it.
Do you think games like Minecraft have a role to play in encouraging children?
Minecraft is a very interesting game and it seems to attract girls as well as boys; it’s not seen as a boy’s game or a girl’s game and I think that’s something that’s really positive about it.
Minecraft is great because it encourages children to play around with virtual worlds and build things from their imagination.
I think people go into the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry because they want to have a positive impact on the world. In the summer before I signed up to my undergraduate course, I had been invited to take part in a Women into Engineering and Technology programme at the University of Strathclyde. We spent the week visiting all the different engineering departments and doing engineering-related activities. The advisor of studies for Building Design Engineering gave a really powerful presentation showing us some of the effects of climate change, the impact of poor quality buildings and infrastructure on people’s lives, such as sick building syndrome, asthma, poor social outcomes and so on, and he said “you all have a chance to make a difference here”. That had quite a powerful impact on me and several of the others in the room. At that point I was toying with doing law, but I thought “here is a chance to make a positive contribution to the world”, which I didn’t feel I could achieve through many other career choices.
Any game that encourages children to think about the world around them and how they can make a positive difference has to be a good thing.
Is Minecraft a first stepping-stone for children towards BIM?
Yes when you start to play around with it, you get a good sense of spatial ability, which is quite important. I have sat in conferences where it’s been said that girls are worse than men at spatial abilities but it’s been shown that spatial ability can be improved. I don’t believe it’s innate; it’s definitely something that can be developed through training so I think any game that can help with this is worthwhile.
I think the way that engineering has been sold in the past means people think it is very difficult, very techie, very geeky, very maths-driven. Yes, there is a big maths component to it but I think it’s often taught the wrong way. Games like Minecraft can open it up to people with different skills. I actually get my students to play construction-related games. Modern games and apps are quite sophisticated as they actually incorporate the laws of physics. This means that without actually knowing any maths or physics you can start seeing playing around and see what happens as you change structures or move blocks around. You can see the effect of different actions straight away and start to understand concepts like forces, reactions, stresses and equilibrium in quite an intuitive way before going in to the maths/theory behind it.
Do you think the maths and science aspect can put off some children and could more be done to make these subjects more accessible?
You can definitely make maths and science more fun. Actually, one of my proudest moments last year came when I was teaching and one of my students in his third year said to me that I had got him to enjoy maths for the first time in his life that semester and that was a huge compliment.
I think it was because he liked seeing how things worked and he understood at a practical level why things might fail or be able to work things out intuitively, but had been put off by the theoretical way he’d been taught maths before and struggled to connect that to real life applications. Educators now have all these tools that we can play around with, on tablet devices, smartboards etc. but of course there are also time pressures and difficulties in keeping up with new technologies etc.
There has been a lot of things done on the educational side about bringing games into learning, I think we could do a lot more of that. Children learn from what they observe around them, or what their parents and other relatives do, and it’s hard for them to decide what career they want to do because there are so many different choices.
I remember as a student working in pubs and other part time jobs and I’d be asked what I was studying. I would reply “civil and structural engineering” and they would say, “With hands like those getting covered in grease!” I would then have to explain that civil engineering is a professional job and mostly involves office-based work or supervising others getting their hands dirty!
There are a lot of misconceptions about different roles in construction. Many people tend to have a vague idea of what an architect does but they think they do everything on the building design side and aren’t aware of other careers such as structural, façade, MEP and fire engineering, or the role of quantity surveyors.
A lot of female students I have tend to have signed up to the course because their dads are in the industry or another relative has got them into it. If we can capture the imagination of younger kids at primary school that would be great, particularly girls, because by the time they get to secondary school they are getting a bit more cynical/fixed in their mind-sets about what a career for them looks like. Programs such as Design Engineer Construct/a Class of Your Own in the UK are fantastic for this, and should be given as much support from the industry and government as possible I think. We’re going to be facing a real skills shortage in the industry over the next few years so we need to think about how to tackle it more proactively.
So do you think there is a cut off point in terms of age for encouraging children into considering these kinds of careers?
By the time they are at secondary school they are so focused on passing exams and getting high marks that there is not as much time to play and explore and try new things. You are straight into studying subjects and it is usually expected by the time you are 14 years old that you have picked your subjects for the next year and it is getting a bit late by then. For girls they are getting into more ‘girly’ things and avoiding things commonly associated as ‘boy things’.
Could more be done to encourage girls into the industry?
Yes I think there could be a lot more that could be done to encourage girls. Parents are obviously a huge influence with the way we bring our children up; encouraging girls to think that they can do anything they set their mind to and that it’s not just a boys job.
We are facing a massive skill shortage generally in the industry, so targeting that “other” 50% of the population would be a big help towards solving it! There are huge infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2 and the shortage of housing in the UK and we have the problem of how are we actually going to build all this stuff that we need for the population growth that is going to happen over the next 20 years.
We hear of being more efficient – doing more with less – with fewer and fewer people etc. but we do need to get more people into the industry.
Will the digitisation of the construction industry attract more young people to it?
I think so. We are starting to attract people from other fields that might not have been traditionally in construction such as computer gaming. I have seen BIM models translated into levels of the Xbox game HALO, for example, so there is some overlap.
Many clients, for example stakeholders in a large hospital project, are not familiar with or able to understand two dimensional plans, sections, elevations and so on. However, if you bring a model of that hospital in to a game environment, then you can have nurses looking at a bed configuration and be able to manipulate it using the game. So they might say “no, this needs to move over as that lifting arm needs to move like that so we need this clear and we need this shifting over here…” and they can actually interact with it rather than trying to understand the weird symbols that we put on to our 2D drawings. We all interact with the world in 3D after all!
I was speaking to a lady over in Colorado who had been researching whether BIM could actually help women in construction because she had noticed that women seem to be attracted to BIM roles. I do hesitate to say this as a blanket statement but women are generally associated with being quite good at collaborating and communicating with people but obviously that’s a sweeping statement! Some men are good it and some women are bad at it but a lot of the time women tend to enjoy roles where they are interacting with people, and for BIM to work successfully, you do need skills in collaborative working practices. So if you have skills in that area you are more than likely to get promoted and get quite a big salary and it’s going to be like that for the next couple of years.
With BIM it’s harder for the old guard to use excuses not to promote women because it’s such a critical area and there’s so few people with the necessary skills. People are now starting to be recognised for their skills rather than their gender.
At my own university (the University of Technology Sydney), we have a department for Women in Engineering and IT and they go out to schools and promote engineering and IT careers to girls.
There’s also a mentoring programme that matches women who are quite successful in the IT and engineering industries with students at the university. The students will then go out and mentor school children. Again, this just comes back to engaging with a role model and seeing that they have made it; it gives you something to recognise and strive for.
One of the main interests of my main PHD supervisor is gender inclusive curricula and how we can make our courses more gender inclusive. Some middle aged male lecturers (and some other lecturers!) don’t realise that they are unintentionally being biased or teaching in a way that doesn’t really appeal to minority groups of students, because we all tend to understand things through the lens of our own experiences. Research (and common sense) tells us that if you make courses more gender inclusive then you also make them more inclusive for everybody, even boys that haven’t come from a typical techie background, and who might understand things in a different way.
There is still a lot of work to be done out there and the UK still has one of the worst records in getting women to study engineering, and to stay in engineering careers post-graduation. The last statistics I remember reading showed that only 7% of the UK professional engineering workforce were female. That same report also noted the shortage of engineering graduates in general: it estimated that 87,000 graduate-level engineers are needed each year between now and 2020, but our education system is only producing 46,000 engineering grads per year. Getting our kids and teenagers (of both genders) to see a career in construction as being exciting and rewarding is vital for the future of our industry.