Chris Fitzgerald finds out why Dr Binsheng ‘Ben’ Zhang believes national competitions give students valuable real-world construction experience.
Students winning competitions is nothing new, but those in GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment (EBE) have more than made their mark over the past year.
On the back of a GCU team winning an international construction business contest, the Chartered Institute of Building Global Student Challenge in Hong Kong in 2015, EBE recorded another impressive brace at two other major industry competitions.
Second-year students Yohannes Brhane, Lee Haywood and Seyed Sasan Seyf won first prize at last year’s IStructE Scottish University Model Competition, while a team of three part-time final-year students − Isla Buchanan, Michael McGovern and Pamela Robertson – finished second at the Structural Concrete Student Design Competition 2015.
Both teams were led by Dr Binsheng Zhang, or Ben as he prefers, a Senior Lecturer in Civil and Structural Engineering.
“Winning awards against Scottish and UK universities does indeed boost our students’ confidence, the reputation of GCU and the BSc Environmental Civil Engineering programme, but it isn’t the primary motivator,” he says.
“I have always encouraged our students to attend national-level competitions to enhance their professional skills. Skills such as conceptual design, creative thinking, problem solving, communication, team work and time management are all learned this way − and they are all invaluable.
“These competitions are organised by professional institutions and leading construction companies, and the tasks set for the competitions are directly from problems encountered in practical construction. For example, we use the brief from the Structural Concrete Student Design Competition as a group project for our fourth-year students, encouraging the best to submit their design to the contest itself.
“Our students can build up and enhance their links to the construction industry through these activities.”
Ben feels compelled to ensure GCU’s students not only graduate with a sound applied knowledge of industry, but also an understanding of the theory behind everything they put into practice. “It’s good that students learn how to do something and do it well,” he says. “But I think it’s just as important that students know why they do something and why that something works. I’ll give you an example. I have delivered professional development courses on structural Eurocodes to design engineers at many different construction companies. These are codes which provide common design criteria and methods of meeting necessary industry requirements.
“I’ve found that a lot of companies largely lack knowledge on the latest codes and many of them are still using out-of-date British Standards. At GCU, we teach our students the development history and design philosophy of Eurocodes.
“By doing this, we give our students the overarching picture. After our students finish their degrees, and go on to work in construction, they have a far better understanding of how to apply the Eurocodes at work.”
In addition, Ben is keen that students are constantly using real-time examples in all of their learning. “Every year, we adopt a real local design project as the basis of course work for our second and third-year students and guide them to apply the skills they have learned. We then see how their work compares with the work that is taking place on the real project. Last year, we selected the University of Glasgow’s Stevenson Hive Building, while this year the project is the West Dunbartonshire Council Office Building. In addition, we teach our students to be familiar with commercial software to solve complex practical problems.
This means our students should be able to deal directly with design work after they complete their study.
“So, you see, everything we are doing is closely aligned to the University’s Strategy 2020. We are delivering excellence in learning combined with an outstanding student experience, which equips them with not just employability skills, but also the ability to make an impact within communities.”
Ben has been at GCU since 2013 and has been actively involved in a multitude of areas including research, consultancy and CPD course delivery.
After completing his PhD in 1987 at Tongji University in Shanghai, he worked as a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, where he remained for 14 years. A spell working as a Structural Engineering Consultant followed, before he became a lecturer in Structural Engineering at Edinburgh Napier University for the next decade.
“It took almost 10 years to complete my BEng, MSc and PhD in Civil and Structural Engineering,” Ben says. “I have spent most of my career since at Scottish universities. At the time I left, the research in China was far behind the UK. But, you know, in the past three decades, Shanghai, and China as a whole, has largely developed on all aspects, including research. In many areas, their research achievements are now on a par with us here in the UK. But I love Scotland. It’s my home.”