Learning on the Job

Each summer, cadets and faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering partner with the Southwest Indian Foundation and the Air Force Civil Engineer community to build modular homes for Native American families. 

  

By Capt. Daniel J. Weeks, P.E., M.SAME, USAF 

 


 

The spirit of engineering is to improve society’s quality of life. Many engineers embrace service to their communities as a key part of their profession. Over the past decade, many engineers have deployed overseas to provide humanitarian aid and basic infrastructure to nations in need.

Of equal importance is improving the quality of life for people close to home.

The cadets and faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DFCE) at the U.S. Air Force Academy, each year along with civil engineering crafts­men from the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), work with the Southwest Indian Foundation (SWIF) to improve Navajo quality of life by constructing housing for families. SWIF is an organization committed to helping the native people of the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes through “providing a hand up, not a hand out.”

Families selected for the Hogan houses include the elderly, handicapped and displaced who live in lean-tos and dilapi­dated sheds. The annual project involves people from many mission areas and provides education, training and improved quality of life where all partners benefit.

Cadets at work

Each summer, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering learn alongside civil engineering craftsmen from the Air Force Reserve Command while building Hogan-style houses for families in need on Navajo Reservations. PHOTO BY CAPT. DANIEL WEEKS, USAF


 

CONSTRUCTIVE OPPORTUNITY

The cadets, journeymen and craftsmen build two traditional Hogan shaped houses every summer during the Field Engineering Readiness Laboratory (FERL). FERL includes many activities to get young engineers hands-on experience with things they are going to be designing later such as water treatment systems, road paving and steel construction. Building the Hogan houses provides a hands-on educa­tional opportunity for the cadets and allows AFRC to fulfill annual training require­ments. The cadets learn about project management and design principles while experiencing the engineer’s call to improve quality of life. Each day, before beginning work on the houses, the cadets take a short class that highlights project management skills, techniques and concerns such as material delivery and availability, schedule and cost controls. This experience is critical to the cadets’ education and development as many of these students become civil engi­neer project managers for the Air Force shortly after graduation.

The cadets review construction and design using the three competing concerns of quality, time and cost that must be balanced. The project emphasizes building a home of good quality that can be main­tained and operated within the constraints of the resident. Construction is limited to a three-week summer academic period. At the end of this period, the houses are shipped to the reservation and placed on a home site and connected to the septic tank and electricity by the native employees and contractors of SWIF.

 

LEARNING THROUGH MENTORING

Beyond building the houses, learning about project management and the skills of each of the construction trades, the cadets benefit from the mentoring of the enlisted members. Many cadets have only limited interaction with enlisted members in their day-to-day life at the academy. FERL is an opportunity for them to immerse and work alongside these highly skilled craftsmen. The cadets benefit from the experience of the NCOs and Senior NCOs and can take those experiences to their first assign­ment in the operational Air Force and be a better second lieutenant. Cadets learn about deployments and what their responsibilities will entail when they graduate and join an engineering unit. Mutually, the craftsmen hone their construction skills by gaining more experience and by teaching the cadets.

Time and again, the cadets report that working side-by-side with the skilled enlisted core opens their eyes to the qual­ity of the craftsmen and the invaluable experiences that most have to offer. The cadets realize the importance of working as a team to accomplish something that seems monumental to accomplish in just three weeks.

 

SUPPORTING THOSE IN NEED

While project and career skills are tangi­ble benefit of the program, the real sum of the work these teams do is providing a quality house to a family in need. Families that are living well below the poverty line in ramshackle housing are able to submit an application to SWIF and, if they qualify, are put on a waiting list for a new house. Recently, elderly families are the ones who have been most in need of the Hogan style houses. In fact, future design iterations now will include improved handicap accessibil­ity around the house as well as an open floor plan that better meets the needs of elderly tenants. Design changes will include installing grab bars and roll under sinks in the bathroom and providing space for a wheelchair to maneuver in the bathroom.

It is through feedback and design and constructability reviews between SWIF and DFCE that a better product is being fielded for these families. The partnership between SWIF and DFCE began in 1998 and has been sustained for the last 16 years. The members of SWIF and the faculty and cadets of DFCE share bonds of service and care for the community. Yearly trips are made to each other’s headquarters to gather lessons learned, conduct recurring design reviews, and ensure transparent and constant project coordination.

 

Cadets at workAfter the Hogan houses are constructed they are shipped to the reservation and placed on a home site where they are connected to the septic tank and electricity system. PHOTO BY DENNIS SCOTT


 

In the late 1990s, for instance, the cadets and craftsmen would construct rectangular homes for the program. But, during feed­back with the customers, it was found that a connection to the traditional Navajo Hogan shape of the eight-sided house was very important. And so the design was changed. The partnership has continued to grow, with cadets and faculty frequently traveling to Gallup, N.M., to participate in the dedi­cation ceremonies for the families. In accor­dance with Navajo tradition, a medicine man blesses the house with corn pollen. It is through these dedication ceremonies that the cadets and faculty get to meet the families who will live in the houses.

 

PARTNERSHIP THAT LASTS

The deep and heartfelt partnership between the cadets and faculty of the Air Force Academy, the AFRC craftsmen and journeymen, SWIF and the Navajo families helped through their collective efforts remains strong. The partnership gives engineers, and future engineers, an opportunity to provide a needed service to families here at home.

Cadets graduate and are commissioned officers who serve as leaders with a solid base of knowledge and appreciation of service to others. They may forget some of the lectures from their classroom education but they do not soon forget the service of their humanitarian efforts and the quality of life improvements they helped provide for a family in the United States.

They will remember and carry these lessons on future deployments and humani­tarian missions during their careers in the Air Force and beyond. If service is the foun­dation of engineering, then constructing the Hogans is the cornerstone for Air Force Academy engineering graduates.

 


 

Capt. Daniel J. Weeks, P.E., M.SAME, USAF, is Instructor of Civil Engineering, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.; 719-333-9776, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..