The Texas Tech University System helped build a capstone course and has plans for more.
Don Bundock wanted a new way to test his students.
An instructor in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, Bundock came to teaching naturally. He spent decades in the construction industry following in the footsteps of his father – a legendary builder in the Lubbock area who had a hand in several projects on Texas Tech University's campus – before deciding he would pass along his hard-earned knowledge to students.
Bundock wasn't interested in teaching just from a construction engineering course guide. He wanted his students to leave college ready for the jobs that awaited them. He wanted them familiar with everything from job sites – a process he starts with tours for first-year students – to the boardroom pitches they'll have to make down the line.
But he needed help.
“I've got a deal for you,” Breedlove told him, and together, they leaned on nearly a century's worth of experience working in the construction industry to create a plan.
What they came up with was a capstone course for construction engineering – one that would put students on the verge of graduation in the shoes of an industry leader – pitching to a team of professionals responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of construction projects.
“The word that kept coming up was ‘sweat,'” Bundock said of his conversation with Breedlove. “The real world is so different from academics. We hoped this would bring a different kind of pressure and give the students a taste of what it's like when there's big money at stake.
“When you're bidding projects and you own the company, the pressure is really hard to describe because you're putting real money out there and risking a lot. One thing that's missing in academics is a focus on the reality of the risks people are taking. I think that's what has inspired me to do this. I want to help students understand the risks and the pressures.”
Sink or Swim
The class convened in the Regents Conference Room at the TTU System Building for the first time in September. Students in the class came to the meeting split into four teams, the fictional companies – Titos Construction, Heartwood Builders, Higgins Construction and Shaw Construction – that would vie for approval from the TTU System.
They were met by Breedlove and the TTU System FP&C team: Todd Hardin, associate vice chancellor; Myranda Aycock, compliance manager; Alexis Henry, contract administrator; Mesha Kliebrink, interiors project manager; John Russell, senior program director; Christi Felton, executive associate to the vice chancellor; Chris Curbo, senior director of budget and finance; and Ryan Wilkens, Parkhill architect and design professional for the project.
Asked to introduce themselves and their companies to the FP&C team, the students, for the first time but not for the last, are put on the spot.
Then Breedlove takes over, introducing the judges and explaining the expectations. Being a new concept for a class, the FP&C team has an outline of what it's looking for, but the students are hearing all of this for the first time.
It's an information overload and, despite all the students having gone through internships prior to this class, the bidding process is unfamiliar to most of them.
The outline of the class is simple: The groups are all trying to convince the FP&C team to hire their fictional company for a construction job on campus.
While the contract won't be real, the construction project laid out for the students is.
Wilkens, the Parkhill architect and design professional, is here partly because he's a Texas Tech graduate who wants to give back, but also because the construction project the students have been asked to work on is his.
“We've been working with Billy and his group for several years on multiple projects,” Wilkens said. “It was just a natural opportunity to get an architect who was familiar with their process, familiar with the other side of it, to be a part of this class.
“And the project they decided to focus on was one of my projects with Lubbock ISD. I designed it. We're already in construction on it, so I can offer some of the things they might need to think about or look at that we ran into.”
As Breedlove explains the process, he makes it clear that he and his team will be judging the fictional companies in much the same way they judge real contractors looking to work for Texas Tech.
“You'll have to be creative for some of this,” Breedlove explains, telling students that part of the project will require coming up with a company history and resumes for each of the team members.
The rest of the capstone class is a test of construction industry knowledge, dedication and the students' ability to function in a board-room situation.
“The deadlines are real,” Breedlove tells the class. “If you miss one, your team is out.”
Over the course of the semester the students are required to meet deadlines with their project pieces. First the request for qualifications (RFQ), then the request for proposals (RFP) must be delivered to the TTU System Building by a designated time on a designated date.
For a normal contractor working with FP&C, the deadlines are non-negotiable and the money spent putting together a bid presentation – often tens-of-thousands of dollars – drives home the necessity of being on time.
For these students, the pressure of monetary loss is replaced by the pressure of impending graduation and how missing a deadline might impact that.
Each phase will include a presentation to the FP&C team after they have had time to review the documents. The requirements for each step are laid out in a document sent to the students, detailing everything they'll need to create and sharing some basic guidelines.
From there, the guardrails are gone.
Making it Work
A few days before the final presentations the students are gathered in one of their normal classrooms for a dress rehearsal of sorts. Bundock wants to know how their final presentations look before they go in front of the FP&C team.
He isn't correcting much, just offering tips on what the teams will be dealing with, how to dress for the occasion and where he thinks they could improve their presentations with the limited time available.
By design, even Bundock doesn't know everything the FP&C team will be focus on. The scoring for the first round of presentations, the RFQ, is kept quiet. By Breedlove's logic, no contractor still in the running would have a scoresheet for their RFQ, so the students are largely left to catch and correct their own mistakes.
With most on the verge of graduation and looking forward to life after college, it wouldn't be fair to say the students are nervous. But this is a final hurdle, one that required a considerable amount of time and effort.
They know the questions following RFP presentations won't be easy to answer.
“They don't take it easy on us,” was the common consensus of the group as the final interactions with the FP&C team loomed, but they also expressed plenty of gratitude for the project.
Rumor in the room has it that one group did poorly with the RFQ portion, but none of the students know yet which company it was.
“They haven't told us anything,” Jose Sandoval, one the Higgins Construction team members says. “We don't really know what we messed up or did well on.”
The final presentations are broken up into hour-long sessions for each team. Breedlove and Bundock wanted it to be as close to reality as possible, so the teams get 15 minutes for their final presentations before facing 45 minutes of grueling questions from the FP&C team.
“To get the whole FP&C group working with us… how good does it get?” Bundock asks. “Plus, we're playing with Monopoly money. When you start playing with real money, the anxiety goes way up.”
On the afternoon of Nov. 16, the first two presentations are given. Two full hours were dedicated to the two teams presenting with the full complement of the FP&C team and Wilkens in attendance.
The time is used largely as a teaching tool, with Breedlove and his team offering advice on technical details of the presentation and asking questions about contingency plans for any potential supply-chain issue, safety management problems and land requirements.
The answers weren't always smooth, and Breedlove and his team intentionally direct questions to any student looking to hide at the back of the group. By the end of each presentation, every student involved had been forced to stand in front of a conference room full of professionals and answer at least one question they didn't have a rehearsed answer for, a valuable lesson in confidence.
What the first two groups of students aren't aware of is how close to home the situation strikes for the FP&C team. Breedlove himself has a similar challenge coming the next day, when he is scheduled to present his team's work at the Nov. 17 TTU System Board of Regents meeting.
Despite their own heavy workload, the FP&C team doesn't rush the process. The students have their full attention.
“It shows that they really care about their students,” said Emily Shaw of the Shaw Construction student team. “It's nice to have people with high influence involved with us.”
The second set of student presentations came the following Monday, Nov. 21, and featured many of the same questions and challenges. Once again any student trying to hide was called on directly.
“When we do this with real companies we do the same thing,” Breedlove explained. “I don't just want to hear from the company owner. I want to make sure we know who we're going to be working with and that they have answers to our questions.”
With the presentations done, the capstone class gathered in the Regents Conference Room as a group for the final time on Nov. 30.
The FP&C team joined them to hand out final grades and announce a winner.
For more than an hour Breedlove and his team went through each part of the project, explained how the students were graded, what the FP&C team was looking for and where each student group had done well and come up short.
The teaching continued up until the final minutes. None of the students in the room were going to fail the course, but they weren't going to be let off easily either.
Even though they were warned it would happen, knowing Breedlove's team called and checked every reference put down by the teams drew a chuckle from the students. Breedlove kept the tone mostly light as he went through each project, pointing out things his team liked and where the students could have done better.
He drew more nervous chuckles while poking a bit of fun at one group or another for not thinking through their fictional timelines well enough or using “Mr. Billy B” to address him on a cover letter. He also gave plenty of praise when it was warranted, both for execution of the goals that were set and for creativity in both ideas and presentation.
The tone and intent were never to embarrass any of the students, but Breedlove was quick to highlight how important small details will be as they move into their professional careers.
For the RFQ, Shaw Construction grades out the best, but it's not enough to hold off the overall winning team.
Higgins Construction, the group consisting of Connor Higgins, Andrew Blick, Jack Mudie and Sandoval, made up enough ground in the RFP process to overtake Shaw for the fictional contract. Attention to detail, creativity and keeping their heads under pressure all played a part in Higgins coming out on top.
More to Come
What Bundock tells his classes is he wants them to represent their college, their program and Texas Tech well when they go out into the industry.
“These students get so much pressure put on them when they start at these jobs, it's just incredible,” he said. “I hope this class let them feel some of that pressure so it's not so overwhelming.”
He considers the first run at the capstone a major success. Most of the students bought in and did well.
“I've been trying to get something like this going for a few years now, and it's been great having Billy and his team take the time to work with us like this,” he said.
His students echoed that sentiment.
“I worked for FP&C last year, so I got to be around Billy and Todd and those guys, and they really are super busy,” said Cooper Ogerly, another of the capstone students who spent time as an intern with FP&C. “Them taking the time out of their days to do this kind of stuff is really cool.”
The capstone class may have been a first of its kind for Bundock, but it doesn't sound like it will be the last, at least if the FP&C team has anything to say about it.
“We have a great teaching platform,” Breedlove explained. “The campus has a lot of projects going on. These classes – whether they're architecture or construction engineering or any other kind of engineering – are all related to those projects. If you're taking a concrete class, we want to take you out and show you the concrete being poured.
“We are always open to trying to get students out in the field and trying to let them see real life. We have a lot of knowledge in our office that we love to share. We have a lot of interns in our office and we put them to work because we want them to come out and be industry leaders.
“And if we can help, we're going to help.”