Attention at the back! Interview with Martin Fischer

Martin Fisher Explains How BIM is Shaping Education

The Stanford engineering professor on the challenges of teaching the instant-gratification generation to think

“The attention span of today’s students is definitely shorter,” says Professor Martin Fischer, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “They’ve grown up with mobile devices, so being able to chat with somebody, text at the same time or quickly look up a webpage is normal. It can be a challenge to get them to dig into concepts and really understand them. I try to show them the importance of defining the problem, but they get frustrated. But if you try to jump to the solution before you’ve agreed on the problem, you’ll never agree on the solution.

“I was talking to my PhD students and I said, ‘Guys, you need to spend more time with each other’. I would have never finished my PhD if I hadn’t spent Wednesday afternoons with two of my colleagues. I knew as much about their PhDs as they did about mine and vice versa. They just looked at me, flabbergasted. They said, ‘We never do anything for an entire afternoon’. The concept was totally foreign to them.”

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On the other hand, when students are freed from tedious processing tasks, they can spend a lot more time thinking. The introduction of building information modelling (BIM) into the curriculum has radically changed the focus of Fischer’s classes. “In the past, you’d look at the drawing and count things and make a list of materials and prices. There wasn’t time to teach more than the mechanics. Then we started to work on 3D models, and since 2008, we only teach project management with BIM. In my class, students no longer learn how to read drawings. All the time spent making lists and comparing them and adjusting them, we no longer need because all that information is in the model.

“So we can create the schedule much more quickly, and now I can talk about what you do from a management perspective. Before, by the end of the trimester, they would have just produced a schedule. But there wasn’t time to reflect on whether it was a good schedule, how it could be better, what you do with it as a manager and how you could control it. But that’s the more interesting part. Now we can get to more meaningful concepts and questions and we can get to a scale and complexity that just wasn’t possible before.”On the other hand, when students are freed from tedious processing tasks, they can spend a lot more time thinking. The introduction of building information modelling (BIM) into the curriculum has radically changed the focus of Fischer’s classes. “In the past, you’d look at the drawing and count things and make a list of materials and prices. There wasn’t time to teach more than the mechanics. Then we started to work on 3D models, and since 2008, we only teach project management with BIM. In my class, students no longer learn how to read drawings. All the time spent making lists and comparing them and adjusting them, we no longer need because all that information is in the model.

“So we can create the schedule much more quickly, and now I can talk about what you do from a management perspective. Before, by the end of the trimester, they would have just produced a schedule. But there wasn’t time to reflect on whether it was a good schedule, how it could be better, what you do with it as a manager and how you could control it. But that’s the more interesting part. Now we can get to more meaningful concepts and questions and we can get to a scale and complexity that just wasn’t possible before.”

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