Hundreds of Queensland high school students have donned VR goggles rather than hard hats to get insights into construction industry careers, thanks to a Virtual Construction Site (VCS) tour developed by QUT lecturer Dr Fiona Lamari.
Dr Lamari is a senior lecturer in construction management with QUT’s Faculty of Engineering and a strong advocate for closing the gender gap in construction and getting more young women into the industry.
She has just returned from visiting nine high schools in North Queensland where students in Years 9 to 12 were able to try out the VCS tour that she developed after being awarded the 2019 National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) International Women’s Day Scholarship.
Dr Lamari used virtual reality (VR) technology to develop the tour, which enables students to take a 360° look at a worksite without the logistical challenges of leaving the classroom.
The system has been used by QUT students but is particularly aimed at regional high schoolers who might not normally get the opportunity to visit a big construction site.
The 2021 May Roadshow in North Queensland was funded by an Advance Queensland Engaging Science Grant and part of a QUT-NAWIC project, STEM Choice in Female High-School Students: In-School Experience Outreach Initiative.
“Some of the kids we visited in North Queensland hadn’t been to Brisbane before so it was really exciting for them to see the city and get an insight into what it would be like to work on a major construction site,” Dr Lamari said.
“The VCS tour is of a real-life construction project – the 300 George Street development, which is Brisbane’s largest integrated CBD development.
“Multiplex allowed QUT access to film on site to create the video of the tour, which shows different stages of construction across different levels of the towers.
“We also interviewed people working on the project – because even in a virtual environment it’s the people and their experiences who students really engage with.”
Dr Lamari said many new university students had never been on a construction site.
“This year I said to my first-years ‘Hands up who hasn’t been on a construction site’ and it was about 85 per cent,” she said.
“COVID has made it difficult to do site visits but in Semester 2 I’m taking 180 students to a real construction site – that will be great!”
Dr Lamari’s teaching expertise was honoured in June when the Australian Institute of Building awarded her its top university teacher award, the 2021 FE Crowle Award for Teaching Excellence.
After teaching at QUT for 12 years, she says it’s easy to nominate the best part of her job.
“I like the students, they’re what it’s all about,” she said.
“I love helping them look into a problem and unpack it and open up different perspectives.
“It’s wonderful when students get to the end of their course and come back and say ‘thank you’ and want to maintain their connection with the university and return to share their experiences with other students after they’ve started work.”
And although Dr Lamari is an expert at using technology to engage her students, she said teaching was about building relationships and making personal connections.
“I treat each student as their own individual person – you respect them and they respect you,” she said.
“Everyone likes to feel that they are important, that they matter.
“Even with technology it comes back to personal relationships and experiences. That’s why in the VCS tour I show real people at the site talking about their roles and what they do. It’s those personal experiences that make it real.”
QUT construction management student Jasmin Yuke is in the third year of her degree and also works as a QUT Student Ambassador – a role that involves sharing her uni experiences with high school students.
Jasmin travelled with Dr Lamari to North Queensland to assist with the VCS tours at schools in Cairns, Townsville and Innisfail, and talk about her own surprising study journey.
“I started a double degree in marketing and creative industries – I was majoring in fashion communication and I wanted to be a journalist and work at Vogue,” she said.
“But after doing some media work experience I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to pursue.
“I then did a placement with Broadspectrum organised by CareerTrackers (a non-profit organisation that links Indigenous young people with paid internships) where I was still writing, but I was doing copywriting on tenders and writing about the construction industry.
“From there, I grew to love construction … and when I think back I was always very creative as a child and drawing up house plans – a lot of people thought I was going to be an architect! But I went to an all-girls school and there wasn’t much education about the construction industry.
“But my intern experience enabled me to see what I really wanted to do and I changed courses into construction management [Bachelor of Urban Development (Honours) (Construction Management)].
“I’m now working fulltime with property and infrastructure consultancy APP Corporation as an assistant project manager, as well as studying fulltime.
“It’s a lot of work – and I have to make sacrifices with my social life! – but I love it.
“I assist our Queensland projects team in the delivery of projects in health, education, commercial and retail. There’s a lot of time spent on the phone, but I also get to do the occasional site visit … it’s always good to get the steel caps on and the high vis!”
Jasmin said Dr Lamari had been a wonderful mentor to her and a great role model for women wanting to get into construction.
“Fiona is amazing – she is so supportive and really encouraging … and she’s so calm, no matter how busy she is,” she said.
“Even in the time I’ve been studying I can see an increase in young women coming into construction management – you can definitely see the ratio starting to change.”
Dr Lamari has a Bachelor of Science-Surveying (Real Estate and Construction) from the University of Hong Kong and completed her Masters and PhD in construction management at QUT.
She has taught at QUT since 2009 and is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Built Environment. She is also co-vice president of the Queensland chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction.
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