Using the Boston Metro area as a real-world classroom, the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) this summer launched a new immersive pre-college program – the BCT CityLab – a first-ever offering at the UMass Mount Ida Campus, for high school juniors and seniors interested in exploring building construction, sustainability, engineering, architecture, and technology-related learning and career pathways. The inaugural program attracted students from five states (MA, NJ, CT, UT, IL) and three countries (Honduras, Switzerland, USA). Each participant learned about college life and earned college credits while engaging in construction site tours, hands-on fabrication projects and skills trainings. The innovative program was designed to make learning fun, and to build tangible learning pathways to access Boston’s innovation economy.
In the Building Physics Module, students learned about heat transfer and thermodynamics in buildings and how construction, control, and maintenance affect the related thermal processes. Then students applied what they learned in a real-world context – the 72-acre Mount Ida campus located in Newton, MA. Using high powered, focus-free cameras to capture infrared images of campus buildings, students observed heat flow in real time – allowing them to learn quickly from visualizations that deliver complex information.
In the Mass Timber Module, students learned about cross laminated timber and the concept of the biobased economy. Students fabricated mini structural beams– they selected pre-cut boards of different qualities, glued them up and then tested the strength of their beams with special equipment. Then the BCT ‘CityLab-ers’ toured ‘live’ construction sites such a 7-story, 34-unit multifamily project in Roxbury – the first building in Boston to be built ground-up with cross laminated timber and to be Passive House certified (designed to use 40-60% less energy than a conventional building).
In the Building Science Module, participants learned about air infiltration in buildings – the exchange of air through cracks and gaps in the outside shell of a building. Students explored construction materials with faculty and recent BCT grads (i.e. Zip R sheathing, Gutex cellulose fiber board insulation, Mento air barrier/vapor retarders). Then the CityLab-ers applied what they learned – they sealed gaps and cracks found in animal-like structures made from metal (i.e. ‘Duct Dawgs’) with foil tapes and mastics to better understand air sealing in HVAC systems – a critical component of energy efficient, high-performance buildings.
Students learned about the importance of air sealing in high performance buildings by sealing leaks in “Duct Dawgs” – dog-like structures made of metal duct materials (top right, below). Students worked in teams and measured leakage with a Duct Blaster – a calibrated air flow measurement system designed to test and document the airtightness of forced air duct systems. Image: PJ Wolff III
The BCT CityLab also featured hands-on activities with laser scanning, drones, diagnostic tools, and modeling software – common in today’s construction management-related fields. For example, students used the Minecraft software to create a sustainable city, learned how to design buildings using Sketchup – a 3D building design tool that behaves more like a pencil than a piece of complicated software, and then played with AutoCAD software – a critical tool used by engineers, architects, and project managers to create blueprints and floor plans.
The new curriculum represents an interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty, alumni, external partners, with a clear mission to open access to pathways that increase access to college and high-wage jobs. The unique learning design empowers the next generation with hands-on engagement and with practical, real-world problem-solving skills. The program allowed high school-aged students to live on campus, explore college life and discover STEM-based career pathways such as BCT (building and construction technology) – an interdisciplinary major offered within CNS that combines elements of architecture, engineering, and the applied sciences.
Citylab Founder and BCT Faculty member, Dr. Paul J. Wolff III, explains, “Boston is experiencing the biggest building construction boom in its history, while new generations are demanding more engagement and flexibility from their college experience and professional careers. The BCT CityLab Program maximizes hands-on learning, while bridging the gaps often found between high school, academics, and industry – illustrating applied learning pathways to Boston’s innovation economy.” For more information about the ‘Living Learning Lab’ model, please contact Dr. Paul J. Wolff III, CNS Faculty and Director of Boston Metro Industry Partnerships at .
Interested in signing up for next year? Visit Pre-College @ UMass Amherst.
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