Alexander Christoforidis, AIA AICP LEEDap // University of Cincinnati
How do we find an effective way to prepare new college students to enter the profession of their choice? Most professions are associated with an academic major and at least a four-year college degree with no guarantee for success. Students accept that they have to take a calculated risk; however, it does not have to be that way. A growing number of colleges have internship or better yet, integrated cooperative education programs, to help students develop knowledge and skills that are essential in their professions. The University of Cincinnati (UC) developed the original faculty-led co-operative education program in 1906. This experiential education model continues to evolve at UC and at many universities worldwide. Today it is not enough to provide connections for students to work in successful companies. To be competitive, students need to develop a good understanding of what it takes to thrive upon entering their first professional experience in order to show potential for growth and a trajectory toward professional success.
Over the following pages we will cover a program developed and proven over a twelve year period that engages professionals in the preparation of students before they enter their first professional work term. Although the program presented is for architecture, the methodology used can be applied to a variety of professions. Readers will learn about a process that benefits students as well as the participating professionals. We will discuss the method used to select critical topics, and how those topics are learned through a series of practitioner-led workshops, ideally at their place of work. Benefits of this program, as well as results collected through employer and student evaluations, will be covered and we will discuss how this methodology can be applied to enhance an array of professionally oriented academic programs.
Once a student decides what they want to become… or what profession they want to pursue, they enter an educational institution where they will prepare to enter that profession. This paper will focus on architecture students that are preparing to enter their profession of choice, review a program with proven results, and draw lessons on how other professional programs can prepare their students for a successful transition from an academic institution into the beginning of a successful career.
Tomorrow’s practitioner must have the capacity to analyze trends and make effective changes in order to keep pace with the needs of society. If we agree on this premise, how can professionals leading work-integrated learning programs respond effectively? One answer is by engaging willing professionals to introduce students to the appropriate social, economic, technical, and political context in which they work. This paper describes a case study where professionals were effectively engaged to prepare students from the University of Cincinnati as they entered their first professional experience in architecture. The effort resulted in a series of professional workshops at the practitioners’ offices. Each of the workshops covered a topic, which is not normally covered in the academic curriculum yet is critical to professional practice. The program was highly successful in the eyes of the professionals for whom these students had worked, as well as the academic faculty who had made it a required course in the foundation year of their architecture program. Although this effort focused on one discipline, the lessons it yielded and the overall process can certainly be disseminated to other professional fields.
The general steps in creating such a program are as follows:
- Analysis of the current academic program internally and through presentation to and discussion with professionals interested in improving student preparation and professional awareness
- Identification of the following:
- a) issues not covered at all or not covered sufficiently in the academic program
- b) issues better covered by active professionals (should involve professionals as well as faculty)
- Coordination of identified topics into a succinct series of professional seminars, workshops, or activities in which a class of students can participate
- Integration into academic curriculum
- Review of program effectiveness by all parties involved along with appropriate adjustments
Analysis of the Current Academic Program
Applying the above steps to any professional career field, location and academic curriculum, the resulting program will vary, but it will result in a more intelligent integration between theory and practice.
In the particular case mentioned above, we will start with the academic program. Most professions requiring licensure have academic accreditation boards, which set standards that are ultimately protected by law for the purpose of protecting the public health, safety and welfare. In engineering, for example, the accreditation board is ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Of course, they exist for academic programs in many disciplines and assert strong control over what is taught because without their approval, schools cannot be accredited, and therefore their students cannot earn professional licensure. The contents of accredited architecture academic programs are set through the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB), which describes its role as follows: “The accrediting process is intended to verify that each accredited program substantially meets those standards that, as a whole, comprise an appropriate education for an architect” 1. In addition to academic requirements, earning licensure requires professional experience and examination. It is therefore understood that certain aspects of the expertise required for professional licensure will be learned under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. The academic program by itself is not expected to be enough to practice effectively; yet graduating students often face a steep learning curve that feels overwhelming when entering their first professional job 2. This is stressful not only for the graduates of a reputable accredited program, but also for the company that hires them. A lack of experience means a practitioner will have to take time away from the job at hand in order to explain tasks, train, and correct mistakes for as long as it takes the recent graduate to get up to speed. The amount of time the learning curve takes makes a significant difference financially in terms of billable time. To further explain without getting into too much detail, a task that would normally take two hours for a practitioner to complete will likely take much longer when working with an inexperienced intern. It may take 30 minutes to explain the task, and if not completed correctly, mistakes will have to be detected, marked up, corrected, and re-checked. This way a two-hour job can take close to two hours for the supervisor, and likely over four hours for the new intern. A firm providing professional services cannot charge more because the task took a total of six hours instead of two, or they will not remain competitive. From the first-time intern’s perspective, even when working with a patient and understanding supervisor, they can certainly feel like a liability. This is all normally expected, considered “par for the course” and part of the cost of bringing up new professionals, but it is also the reason so many companies demand experience before hiring.
Identification of Issues
Professional degree programs can do more to mitigate such emotionally and financially straining scenarios for their graduates and their first employers. In the case of our architecture program, we sought to fill enough of the missing links standing between academic curricula and practice by first getting specific on what was missing. We did the following to identify what would be most helpful to students as we prepare them to enter their first professional experience:
- Surveyed practitioners to determine specific issues that were not covered at all or not covered sufficiently in the academic program, and asked which issues would be better covered by active professionals.
- Interviewed several practitioners at various types of practices to get more in-depth answers
- Surveyed studentson what they were most curious about in regard to practice
- Drew on my own experience as a professional architect, firm owner, and supervisor of first-time interns
- Checked the NAAB criteria to see if the issues raised were actually covered
Our research identified which topics to cover based on two criteria:
First, topics that are not covered in accredited academic architecture programs, and second, topics that are especially beneficial for the interns to understand when starting their first paid professional experience.
The following are the topics selected for our workshop series:
- The project process from beginning to end: Architectural projects take years to move from initial concept to completion. The length and unpredictability of individual projects are impractical to cover in academic classes, yet knowing the major steps in this process allows one to better understand what is needed at any particular time.
- Marketing: This is an important part of the growth and survival of today’s architectural practices. Since those who take part in this workshop series are also soon to be seeking work in an architectural office, we link the firm’s marketing component to each student’s resume, portfolio and job interview.
- The regulatory process: Many industries and professions require government approvals and must comply with regulatory requirements. Architecture and the construction industry is certainly no exception. There are zoning requirements, a complex set of building codes, and other mandated requirements that are part of every project.
- The composition of construction documents: Architecture firms spend about 50% of their billable time producing construction documents 3, yet NAAB requirements make it possible for a student to graduate with a degree in architecture without even seeing a single full set of construction documents.
- Roles and responsibilities in an architectural firm: What are the various job titles in a firm? Who does what and why, and what is expected at each level? How do firms earn money? What are billable hours?
- The economic forces behind design decisions: It is estimated that 80% of construction dollars are developer4 driven, yet NAAB criteria do not require students of architecture to attain an understanding of how developers balance investment in a building with its earning potential. Architects have to quickly understand that this is a central issue for many of their clients.
Coordination of Identified Topics into Succinct Series of Professional Workshops
Once these topics were identified, we developed a series of workshops, most of which could be taught in the classroom, but we felt would be best taught by practitioners at their offices for a number of reasons: First, having the chance to see several exemplary professional offices would in itself give students familiarity with the professional environment. Second, practitioners who volunteered to teach a workshop were more willing to have students visit their office and were therefore more invested. Third, we guessed that physically being there would increase the students’ chances of getting a job with one of the participating firms. Finally, associating a lesson with a unique environment is likely to make it more memorable.
Having worked with local firms through our cooperative education program gave us the knowledge to identify and approach supervisors who we felt were best suited to cover each topic. When we explained what we were trying to do for the students, most practitioners we approached were very agreeable with the intention and saw it as an opportunity for their local architecture program to produce students who were better prepared to enter the workforce, including their own offices. Of the six topics mentioned, the first required two workshops — one at a large commercial firm and the other in a smaller residential practice. The topic of construction documents was also covered in both workshops, as well as the workshop on the regulatory process. Marketing, roles and responsibilities, and economic forces were each handled as a separate workshop. The delivery of the workshops were decided upon and arranged through meetings between the faculty and practitioners. At each workshop, the topics were covered through presentations, interactive activities, and construction site visits as seen in the photos below.
Integration into Curriculum and Feedback from Affected Participants
The last step was to integrate the workshop series into a course. The first few years during which the workshops were delivered, students attended on their own time and not through a particular class. Students were especially interested because it brought them close to the very reason they committed to becoming an architect, and they realized the workshops had a direct effect on their ability to perform well on the job. Students had the opportunity to evaluate each workshop and gave overall evaluations on the entirety of the workshop series. To evaluate the effectiveness of these workshops, we studied supervisor evaluations of the participating students after their first work term.
Students overwhelmingly rated the course highly. Over 90% of questions were answered with the most positive five of five on a Likert scale. More importantly, every single student who took part in this program was able to find a paid work opportunity in less than three months, but most often during the first month of their job search. We received very positive comments from the supervisors of these students after their first four-month work term on our standard assessment survey. Both of these facts were instrumental in convincing the program’s curriculum committee to make this course a requirement for students who had yet to work in an architecture firm. The course we developed is only two credit hours, which is all we could fit into the curriculum without increasing the overall tuition or disrupting accreditation requirements. It does; however, give us enough time to hold the workshops. Now that the program has been in place for twelve years and has been a required course for the last seven, there is a proven track record that this method of preparation produces significant improvements for students and employers alike on that critical first professional experience. Over the years, the course has been refined and each workshop has been reviewed regularly and tweaked. We also continue to introduce content that is reflective of the changing nature of practice. Like so many professions, architectural practice has undergone significant changes over the last twelve years5.
Discipline-specific university programs can provide a head start to students before entering the workplace by identifying the “gaps” between their curricula and the knowledge and skills required to practice effectively. Since there is rarely room to add content to academic curricula, having a concise, yet memorable way of introducing the topics to fill these “gaps” is key. Identifying these “gaps” is by no means a criticism. Academic curricula are, for the most part, carefully conceived to deliver a knowledge base that is needed for professional practice, and quite difficult to effectively teach on the job. At the same time; there is much about a profession that is best learned through experience as opposed to the academic setting.
effort to involve practicing professionals in the preparation of students for
their first career employment is mutually beneficial. In
our experience, both students and practitioners took to the program
enthusiastically as they both realized significant benefits. For employers it
helps raise the knowledge base of new employees, and for students it raises
their ability to understand, contribute, and learn much more at the outset of
their professional career.
- National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB) Accreditation Guidelines, 2016
- 11 Things You Learn at Your First “Real” Architecture Job (Lessons from a Recent Graduate) ArchDaily 17, July 2017.
- AIA Handbook for Professional Practice. McGraw Hill Publishing, New York, NY. 15th Edition 2017.
- Gil, Luis; Peiser, Richard “The Architect as Developer”, DesignIntelligence, March 2016.
- Architecture: The Story of Practice; Cuff, Dana; MIT Press, 1992.