From Norfolk in the rain, those lessons about management back in cosy South Ken classrooms must seem like a bit of a dream. One of the lessons in civil engineering management is that you just cannot predict all risks though you can predict that unforeseen things will happen. Today’s unforeseen things were a rabbit and a bird family. The rabbits that abound in our rural construction classroom had decided that the floor decks for our four-storey Gherkin tower makes a great man-made burrow. The students were hard-hearted and turfed the rabbits out of their home (assured that mother nature does a better job). But they turned and found that the noisy bird who’d been flapping around was actually upset that the students were almost standing on top of her nest. And there were the three eggs she wanted to hatch. Smack bang in the middle of the place where the tower should be built. So, move the three tiny eggs or move the location of the tower? This is Britain, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the biggest membership organisation in the country, so of course the students moved their tower despite the delay it would cause.
Tales of real construction projects held up for 18 months because a Great Crested Newt decided to take residence in a rain puddle on a site were immediately doing the rounds. This is real life. Real engineering. Birds matter. No one puts birds in your exam paper but the birds dont know that so they take up residence where you were meant to start excavating your foundations. And so we have a lesson about respect for life, respect for nature, respect for doing the ethical and proper thing. No one planned it, and that is what makes it such a valuable lesson.
When students attend constructionarium, they have to take roles such as “project manager” or “safety officer” or “budget manager” or “power tool operative”, but few expected to have to take on “media officer”, but businesses need good client relations, and big projects in engineering tend to affect many other peoples’ lives: good communication skills are necessary for public inquiries and planning applications. The media officers are also handling various research projects where we need students to gather or generate data for the staff who are using the students as specimens in an educational ‘experiment’. Thus real glee ensued when the BBC rang up and said Radio Norfolk would like to do an interview and do we have any students willing to speak to the media?
Willing? Two turned up to speak and the media officers from all the other teams turned up to watch just to see engineering communications in action. And it seems you get little time to prepare and must be willing to be brief, accurate and trusting of the journalist who will edit your words. Your power as an engineer is to work with and sometimes conquer the forces of nature, but today students learned that it is very difficult to conquer the power of the media. We wonder what the editor has done with our words but all of Norfolk will find out when they listen to their radios tomorrow morning. Could we have scripted a better ‘lesson’ on engineering communications in a classroom: we think not.
– Alison Ahearn, Constructionarium lecturer