The announcement of the winning names causes an eruption of activity as the lucky few jump up with exclamations and congratulations.
This isn’t a championship game or the lottery, though.
It’s the Associated Schools of Construction (ASC) Annual Construction Management Competition, where university construction management students from the region compete to solve real-world problems and present their solutions to industry leaders who often overcame the same challenges themselves.
Although ASC hosts competitions all over the country, participating coaches said the Region 6 & 7 event, encompassing programs from the Rocky Mountain and Far West areas, is the biggest. This year featured 53 universities and more than 1,400 competing students in different areas of construction, including heavy civil, commercial, mixed use and design build.
“It’s the Super Bowl of construction education,” said Kai Kaoni, assistant professor of practice at Northern Arizona University and coach of the heavy civil team.
It is here that NAU’s Construction Management program truly shines, taking home winning titles nearly every year since it started competing in 1997. The 32nd annual competition was held two weeks ago, during which NAU students won second place in both the heavy civil and design build categories. It was the first year a design build team from the university competed.
Every February, teams of six to eight students travel to Sparks, Nevada to be sequestered in hotel rooms and solve complex problems like creating one building inside another or extending existing sewer lines, depending on the category. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. the teams sift through hundreds of pages in documentation and create timelines and cost estimates, all while adapting to the changes that can be added to the initial problem throughout the day.
Following a strict deadline, they then present their proposals the following day to a room full of professionals, recruiters and other teams.
“When you’re spending 16 hours in a small hotel room with six other teammates, you’ve got to make sure everyone is keeping a level head and no one is panicking. Keeping stress levels down is important,” said Mike Headley, captain of this year’s commercial team.
Competing has become a sort of legacy for the NAU program, with students who once competed in the program now teaching and coaching at NAU.
Rob Bruner competed with a team that won first place at the regional competition in 2004 and second place at the national competition, which no longer exists. He is now the construction industry coordinator at NAU and coaches the commercial construction team in the ASC competition every year.
He said he is too familiar with the challenges of this competition.
“It’s an extreme amount of pressure for 18-, 19-, 20-year-old students to stand up and act like they know what they’re talking about in front of this team that actually knows what they’re talking about, all these recruiters that are looking to hire them and all these other schools that are judging them,” Bruner said.
Industry sponsors also serve as mentors for the students, in addition to the source of all transportation fees so the students can compete.
Herb Tiffany, captain of this year’s heavy civil team, said his team met with its sponsor weekly to help clarify unfamiliar topics prior to the competition.
To succeed as often as these NAU students do requires a high level of commitment. Students must not only apply to compete, but also enroll in a class each fall that will prepare them for the February competition. They devote at least four hours each week to the course throughout the fall, as well as time during the summer and on weekends to prepare.
“At the beginning the semester, we lay it down and let everyone know this is a huge time commitment,” Headley said. “If you are agreeing to this competition, you’re losing some of your Saturdays and some of your Tuesday nights for the class. But at the end of the whole competition, it’s well worth all the time that we put in.”
Although students work extensively with software, templates and practice problems, the skills needed to succeed in the competition extend beyond knowledge.
Bruner said, “We’ve been involved in it long enough that we know what a successful team looks like and we can try to mold our team into that, with the communication that they need, the leadership skills that they need, the presentation skills that they need and then give them instruction knowledge, too.”
Through the NAU course, competitors perform practice presentations up to 10 times before competing.
Headley and Tiffany said these presentations, made to professors and industry members, are incredibly tough but valuable in preparing for the competition, which makes a noticeable difference in student performance.
The event, open to any NAU construction management student, is the ideal time for students to experience the pressures of their future career and learn from it prior to entering the workforce.
“We really see these students flourish from when they enter this program to when they actually make it to competition day," Kaoni said. "They build so much confidence in themselves and in their skills to communicate and collaborate on a really high level and become an effective team that is able to tackle challenging problems together.”