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New STEM designation a step up for ASU construction management program

February 25, 2019

Change reflects the increasing integration of science, technology, engineering and math education into the curriculum

Excelling in construction management today requires knowledge of an extensively and rapidly expanding set of new tools.

Fundamental business skills — budgeting, scheduling, project planning, contracting, personnel supervision and the like — are essential to effectively manage projects. But today’s increasingly multifaceted construction industry demands a trove of more wide-ranging talents.

Students pursuing construction management degrees in Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction are exploring multiple branches of engineering, the scientific foundations of building methods and materials, and the intricate workings of advanced information, design and visualization technologies.

Acknowledging that multidisciplinary breadth and depth, the Office of the University Provost at ASU recently recognized the science, technology, engineering and math education that has been steadily integrated into the construction management program over the years by approving its reclassification from a business management program to a STEM program — formally a construction engineering technology/technician classification.

The recognition isn’t simply to reinforce the academic credentials of the program that’s accredited by the American Council for Construction Education. More than anything, the STEM designation will benefit students in significant ways, says Associate Professor Anthony Lamanna, chair of the undergraduate construction management program.

The STEM connection “carries more weight than ever” in the construction industry and the job market in general, says Lamanna, the Sundt Professor of Alternative Delivery Methods and Sustainable Development in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

A degree in a STEM field tells prospective employers those graduates have the training and experience “to fit into a work environment that is technologically advanced, where the tech people are no longer just support staff but are equipped to be among the leaders of companies,” Lamanna said.

Beyond giving graduates the range of expertise to qualify them for higher-level positions, the certified STEM program can offer some extra advantages to at least two groups of students: U.S. military veterans and international students striving to establish careers in the United States.

Students who are on active military duty, reserve duty or who are civilian veterans are eligible for more financial support and more time to complete college studies when they are enrolled in STEM degree programs than in other programs.

Building today involves much more than the skilled craftsmanship on display at building sites, like that of ASU’s Palo Verde Main residential hall shown under construction here. The industry’s technological evolution has brought more advanced engineering techniques and more science-based approaches into the work performed before such projects get off the ground. Photo by Nick Narducci/ASU

That’s an especially big boost for those in the military who are transitioning into civilian life and seeking the education to launch careers, says Mike Gonzalez, the Southwest Region Director of McCarthy Building Companies, a major U.S. construction contractor. In 2018, the company’s Southwest region operations provided 28 internships and hired 30 full-time construction management graduates from STEM programs.

“It really helps those veterans who continue to work full time or part time to support their families while they are also going to college, which makes it difficult to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in just four years,” said Gonzalez, a 1991 ASU alumnus and graduate of the Del E. Webb School’s construction management program who in 2017 retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after 30 years of service.

The GI Bill, which provides educational and other benefits for those who have served in the armed forces, helped to pay for Gonzalez’s studies at ASU.

The military now also offers the GI Bill STEM Extension to encourage veterans to pursue education in tech fields. The extension bill provides additional financial support for college expenses for up to nine months more than the 36 months covered by the standard GI Bill.

Nearly 10 percent of construction management students at ASU are veterans or still serving in the military. The program’s STEM designation “will make it more attractive to all students, but I think you will see an influx of veterans and improved graduations rates,” said Gonzalez, who is on the Del E. Webb School’s Industry Advisory Council Executive Board.

After four years in the U.S. Army, Jake Myers began working in January 2018 as a supervisor with the Phoenix-based residential and hospitality building company Genova-Detwiler.

From the time Myers interviewed for the job, his bosses, Aaron Genova and Cal Detwiler — alumni of ASU’s construction management program — urged him to consider studying construction management at ASU.

He checked out the program and learned of the high percentage of its students who land jobs in the field by the time they graduate and the money-making potential in the profession. Now the father of two plans to begin studies later this year — taking night classes while continuing to work full time.

For Myers, what the program and the GI Bill offer was enough to draw him to the program, but he knows earning a degree with the STEM designation will give prospective employers more confidence in his capabilities.

“The STEM factor is also likely to be a big draw for students from other countries,” said James Murphy, president and CEO of Phoenix-based Willmeng Construction and a 1998 graduate of the construction management program.

Construction professionals must have expertise in a broad array of emerging technologies. ASU’s construction management students are schooled in a variety of technologies to aid design and planning, as well as high-tech tools used in the field to guide building strategies. Here ASU students use a device to help identify sections of a bridge that need to be rebuilt or reinforced. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

The ASU construction management degree will now give international students three years — rather than one — after graduation to secure a job in the United States, which will make it easier to establish permanent residency status in the U.S. and to later pursue citizenship.

Murphy attributes Willmeng Construction’s growth in large part to recruiting and hiring the most promising job candidates, regardless of their countries of origin. He considers it to be in the interests of the nation at large to have “the best and the brightest in the world” contributing their skills to strengthening the U.S. construction industry.

Being employed in the construction industry and having a degree from a STEM program at a U.S. university, “makes the quality of their applications to stay in the country significantly higher,” said Murphy, who is also a member of Del E. Webb School’s Industry Advisory Council Executive Board.

Today’s most highly sought-after construction management professionals are more tech savvy than ever, Gonzalez and Murphy say. Employers are looking for students who come out of school with the proficiency for the use of technologies for almost every aspect of the industry, whether it be accounting, project scheduling and contracting or applying mathematical and scientific principles to construction design and engineering.

That is why new courses in the Del E. Webb School focus on the operations and applications of innovative high-tech advances, including building information modeling, augmented and virtual reality, and machine learning.

“In almost every construction management course we teach, students are learning about new kinds of technology,” said program chair Lamanna.

The deeper level of STEM knowledge the field demands may be one reason for an increase in enrollment in the Del E. Webb School’s construction management master’s and doctoral degree programs, Lamanna adds.

The success of efforts to prepare the school and its students to be “poised for the future of the industry,” he said, is confirmed by a 100 percent employment rate for graduates of the program over the past several years, as well as the school’s stature as one of the leading university construction programs in the country.

Students also benefit from industry partners that support the school by sponsoring training programs, guest lecturing in classes, providing internships and hiring graduates of the program.

A STEM designation's value also includes elevating perceptions of both construction education and the construction industry.

Lamanna has talked to members of the school’s advisory council — including Gonzalez and Murphy — about how to further advance that reputation-enhancing impact.

“We’ve talked about figuring out ways to really change the image of the construction industry,” Gonzalez said, so its workforce is more accurately viewed as educated professionals rather than simply practitioners of a craft or laborers with only basic training.

Graduating students from a STEM program who are versed in an array of engineering and science fields and who exhibit a creative mastery of a variety of cutting-edge technologies ought to help dissolve such an outdated stereotype.

Top photo: Construction management students in ASU’s Del E. Webb School of Construction look over building plans for a major mixed-used development that has since been completed on the university’s Tempe campus.  Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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The future of visiting the Grand Canyon

February 25, 2019

Several issues will affect tourism at the famed national park in the coming years, say two ASU experts

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park draws visitors from all over the world to bask in its beauty, making it not only a precious ecological resource to cherish but also a major economic driver for the state of Arizona. 

Balancing the twin missions of access and preservation is key to its future, according to experts at Arizona State University.

“When you think about the Grand Canyon itself, there’s so much to it,” said Megha Budruk, an associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. 

“There’s something for geologists, there’s something for artists, something for historians, the tourists,” said Budruk, who teaches a course called Wilderness and Parks in America.

“The park is physical, but the meanings we ascribe to it allow people to connect to it in different ways,” she said.

And many more people are connecting to the Grand Canyon. The park had 6.2 million visitors in 2017, up 42 percent from a decade earlier. The month of November 2018 had 10 times more visitorsAbout 410,000 in November compared with about 38,000 in 1919. than the entire year of 1919, when Grand Canyon National Park was formed.

All those tourists generated $648 million — along with 9,800 jobs. The total economic benefit to Arizona, according to the National Park Service, was more than $900 million.

In fact, the park is so important that Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order in early 2018 calling for the Grand Canyon to remain open in the event of a federal government shutdown. When the government did shut down in late 2018, the state’s tourism and parks offices paid to keep day-to-day operations running.

Crowd and Shuttle

Along with the revenue, tourism brings crowds requiring roads and parking lots and toilets and maintained trails. The National Park Service, in a 2017 report, estimates that the backlog of maintenance and repairs totals nearly $12 billion nationwide. About $330 million of that is needed at the Grand Canyon. Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service

More popular than ever

Christine Vogt, a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism, and Budruk have done research on the Grand Canyon’s economic impact in the region.

“It’s very clear there’s a prominent route starting in Las Vegas and doing the North Rim and coming around, including the Grand Canyon and Navajo parks and back up to Utah,” Vogt said.

“The whole region, with Las Vegas and its marketing machine, is getting a lot of international visitors,” she said. “The Grand Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley, Moab — all are getting increased tourism.”

Budruk said the spillover effect is felt throughout northern Arizona, which includes Canyon de Chelly, Montezuma Castle, Navajo, Parashant, Pipe Spring, Sunset Crater Volcano, Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments, Glen Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site and Petrified Forest National Park. The Navajo Nation is home to four tribal parks, including Monument Valley, and there are several state parks in the Flagstaff area.

“What we found is that most visitors did not have the national monuments as their primary destination but were stopping over as part of their Grand Canyon visit,” Budruk said.

But along with the revenue, all that tourism brings crowds who require roads and parking lots and toilets and maintained trails. In fact, all of the national parks are badly in need of infrastructure work. The National Park Service, in a 2017 report, estimates that the backlog of maintenance and repairs totals nearly $12 billion nationwide. About $330 million of that is needed at the Grand Canyon, mostly for water systems and trails.

“The recent shutdown shed light on what it takes to keep a park open and friendly and clean and safe,” Vogt said. “But over the course of my professional time, the backlog of infrastructure and money needed to run these parks has not changed.

“There needs to be a more significant mechanism for paying for the management and enhancing the overall park infrastructure, which then improves the park experience.”

Adding infrastructure with conservation in mind

Vogt said that one change that likely will continue is the increased role of advocacy groups like the Grand Canyon Conservancy

“They play a very important partner role with the National Park Service in fundraising and in helping to pay for infrastructure and improvements,” she said.

“They’ve supplemented and in some places have taken over the guide and interpretation programs.”

Among the Flagstaff-based nonprofit’s projects: replacing light fixtures in the park to preserve dark skies, restoring and maintaining trails and completing renovation of the Desert View Watchtower and murals. The Grand Canyon Conservancy also runs a Field Institute that offers guided day hikes, backpacking trips, cultural classes and certification courses.

Vogt and Budruk said that the Grand Canyon has done a good job of trying to balance welcoming big crowds while mitigating their effect on the environment. One solution was the redevelopment of the South Rim a few years ago to add shuttle buses and limit driving and parking.

In 2010, the park approved a climate change action plan, warning that a hotter climate could lead to changes in weather and animal habitats, more insects, an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires and floods and changes to water flows in the Colorado River. The sale of water bottles was eliminated, solar panels were added to the visitors center and the park increased recycling and added a system to reuse wastewater for toilets and irrigation.

Another way to control crowds is to keep the North Rim open only part of the year, which allows it to rest. The lack of infrastructure, including roads and personnel, keeps the crowds down and allows visitors a more solitary experience.

Technology, including social media and wildlife cams, have been cited as a driver of tourism at the national parks, but Vogt said that the Grand Canyon has to consider limiting technology to protect the environment.

“I think a big issue is dark skies and noise pollution. Regulating drones and helicopters is important,” she said.

“I don’t think people go to the parks to have technology in their faces. One reason you go to a park is to step away from that,” she said.

Managing the park on the macro

Michelle Sullivan Govani is a PhD student in School of Life Sciences who is studying preservation across the national park system. Her research project is examining the National Park Service mandate to preserve natural resources for future generations. She has interviewed top agency officials, administrators and park rangers from around the country to see what preservation means to them and how it has changed since the agency was formed in 1916.

“In the beginning, it was about these spectacular scenes and feeling emotionally and mentally invigorated,” she said. Over time, the mission has evolved.

“It’s not that scenery isn’t still important, but it’s not what defines preservation or the park service’s mandate any more, as they would tell it,” she said.

“They’re more concerned with ecosystems and with ecological processes.”

So now, just like each park is embedded in an economic network, each park also must be managed as part of a regional ecosystem.

“Ecosystems aren’t defined by the political lines that parks are defined by, so how do we work outside those boundaries to make sure we’re preserving ecosystems as they function in reality and not just for the scenes they provide to us?” Sullivan Govani said.

“You see that in the way they’re managing parks across boundaries. They’re working with the Bureau of Land Management, with the U.S. Forestry Service and with private landowners.”

Using science to inform the management of the park system has always been part of balancing competing interests, she found. 

“The thing about National Park Service history that’s fascinating is that you see all these starts and stops with regard to how they incorporate science-based management. It’s not that whoever is in charge doesn’t support research, but priorities differ and there’s a limited budget,” she said, noting that customer service is always a concern.

Going forward, it also will be important for the Grand Canyon, as part of the National Park Service, to be more representative of the American public. The agency released a report in 2018 that revealed that its workforce is 81 percent white, 62 percent male and 42 percent over the age of 50. 

“It helps to have an agency that reflects the American population so they see somebody like themselves and feel that, ‘This is a place for me too, where I am welcomed,’” Budruk said.

Top photo: Crowd of tourists gather at an overlook at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

Audio interview by Karie Dozer.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News