Monday, 30 June 2008
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the U.S. Air Force Academy Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory, on the academy's campus in Colorado. FERL is a unique program designed 15 years ago by Brig. Gen. David O. Swint (Ret.). Since cadets receive only three weeks off in the summer, they have little opportunity to have internships or summer jobs. Because of a concern that many of these cadets had no experience with construction and it was very difficult to relate classroom exercises to the field, FERL was developed under a motto of "Build First, Design Later." The program is open to engineering majors not only at the Air Force Academy, but also cadets from the U.S. Military Academy and Air Force ROTC students. The cadets, all rising juniors, are divided into teams (flights) of approximately 15 each. This year there are five flights. The intense three-week-long program fits within the cadets' time off.
The objective of FERL is to develop knowledge, skills and responsibilities and provide the more traditional laboratory experience that might be obtained at a larger university so it can be applied to classroom theory. FERL is indeed a hands-on program. It has its own dedicated area on the academy campus. The cadets sleep in tents and live at the site for the three weeks. They focus on four major areas: geotechnical, structural, construction and environmental. They do soil analysis and pavement design. In the structural area, some of the items relate to bridge design, trusses and concrete beams. Construction relates to scheduling, constructability, surveys and project coordination. The environmental area focuses on hydraulics, units operations, water treatment, waste management and hazmat sampling. This effort is taught partly through classroom time, but it is 20 percent classroom and 80 percent field. In the field, the cadets perform a survey of a crash site to locate the debris. They take soil and water samples. They do roadway development by constructing a bituminous concrete paved road and operating heavy equipment. They pour cement concrete beams and pads. They design and construct a sprinkler system and build a large steel bridge that requires not only welding, but other types of connections.
The highlight of the cadets' effort is in building two-bedroom houses for the Navaho Indians. They build a house entirely using wood-frame construction. The only part that they don't build is the roof trusses. These homes are then shipped to the Navaho reservations, where they are placed on foundations. Over the course of FERL's 15-year history, they have provided 28 housing units for the Navaho Indians.
I was extremely impressed by FERL's professionalism and attention to detail. The cadet students are supported by mentors, some of which are active duty Air Force, reservists, Air National Guard and contractors. The faculty of the Air Force Academy also serves as support personnel. It is a highly unique experience; one that I think traditional college programs could model. I would especially like to thank Col. Seely, the department head, and Captain Hoisington for their hospitality in showing me around the FERL activities as well as the campus.