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Building sustainable communities: A project-based learning approach to modify student perceptions of the building industry


ABSTRACT The building industry has experienced a paradigm shift with increased use of data for collaboratively designing, building, and operating sustainable, socially conscious, energy-efficient projects; this shift has resulted in a theory called virtual design and construction (VDC).  Secondary education provides students few opportunities to explore these methods. However, project-based learning (PBL) has shown success in VDC education at a graduate level; though scarce in low-income schools due to a discrepancy called the ‘opportunity gap.’  The opportunity gap creates a perception that the building industry does not lead to advanced STEM degrees — which students otherwise discover through courses like VDC. That perception forms a resistance to building industry entrance pathways such as building trade apprentice programs. That resistance then hinders achieving the social mandate to include underrepresented demographics such as women in high paying STEM fields such as apprenticed building trades. As a result, it is a male dominated pathway.  Leveraging California Proposition 39 funding, the authors developed a PBL education platform to integrate VDC students from the secondary, apprentice, undergraduate, and graduate levels. The purpose of this research was to discover to what degree underrepresented youth perceive the building industry as a career if given an opportunity to learn VDC through PBL. The VDC curriculum was piloted as a course that encompassed topics of sustainability, environmental justice, and energy efficiency.  A mix of community-based participatory research (CBPR), ethnography, and surveys were utilized to gather content. Data were gathered from three secondary institutions, including an all girls school and an underrepresented community with one tenth the admission rate to top-tier universities of Palo Alto high school (selected as a generic benchmark for comparison).  Through CBPR the authors show that VDC-PBL 1) narrows the opportunity gap 2) teaches virtual design and construction, and 3) explores careers in sustainability and topics of environmental justice.

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