U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – The top civil engineer at the Air Force Academy was excited to have the school’s field engineering readiness laboratory – FERL – in action May 31-June 19 after the lab shut its doors last year due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
“You can feel the collective enthusiasm for FERL this year and it’s not just coming from cadets,” said Col. Joel Sloan, head of the Academy’s civil and environmental engineering department. “We’re all enthusiastic because this,” he said with a smile, referring to the hustle and bustle from cadets at the mostly outdoor lab, “is what we do.”
Captain Paige Blackburn is a civil engineering instructor and directs the FERL course.
“Cadets are even more excited about FERL this year than usual,” she said. “The energy is heightened and they’re excited to bond.”
Sloan and Blackburn attribute this excitement to the slowly relaxing restrictions set in place at the base early last year when the coronavirus spread rapidly across the U.S.
“The FERL course was not offered last year due to COVID restrictions, so there’s a renewed sense of enthusiasm from both cadets and faculty for this year’s offering,” the colonel said.
Health and safety experts at the base and Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Academy superintendent, have slowly increased activities and operations across the 19,000-acre installation with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state- and local-level health and safety experts.
Like this year’s graduation ceremony, FERL’s return to business occurred only due to the state’s decrease in COVID patients. According to a June 14 report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, nearly 2.8 million Colorado residents were fully vaccinated by that date.
Sloan said while the Academy still works to combat the virus, the pandemic caused CE faculty and cadets to “rethink” the event. Perhaps the most radical change, he said, is that the faculty invited lieutenants, all former cadets who graduated from the Academy with civil engineering degrees, to advise cadets during this year’s FERL. Sloan hopes this practice continues for the duration of the program.
“We didn’t have a full staff of senior cadets to rely on as leaders during FERL due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, so we brought in lieutenants to make up for that,” he said. “They relay to the cadets what it’s like to be on active duty in the operational Air Force.”
The laboratory gives cadets a three-week summertime opportunity to apply their CE skills in a deployed or field environment, under the guidance of enlisted, commissioned and civilian career experts.
“That’s credibility right there,” Sloan said.
Tons of Learning
The field engineering readiness laboratory opened its doors in 1994 and the academic course serves as the cornerstone of the civil engineering major offered at the Air Force Academy.
“Roughly 30% of Air Force civil engineers come through the Academy and experienced the FERL as cadets,” Sloan said.
At the lab, cadets practice CE skills including land surveying, paving, driving heavy equipment, building Hogan homes for Native Americans in New Mexico, metalwork and a gamut of other projects.
Cadet 2nd Class Benjamin Kuhn was one of several cadets putting several industrial construction vehicles through their paces at the FERL “practice pit,” June 10.
“‘The pit’ gives us a chance to learn the basics of operating heavy equipment from people who do it every day,” he said, waiting to hop behind the control of an excavator used to dig trenches, foundations, dredge rivers and other construction purposes. “It’s my favorite because it has so many moving parts working at the same time.”
Kuhn became a civil engineering major, he said, because it’s a specialty needed across the Air Force.
“Now that I’m immersed in FERL, I enjoy CE more and more,” he said.
Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice
Cadet 2nd Class Leah Wiegers stirred up a cloud of sawdust as she sawed sheets of concrete boarding used to frame the corners of Hogans, June 10. Building Hogan homes for the Southwest Indian Foundation Navajo community in New Mexico has been a mainstay FERL project since 2000. Cadets have built 51 Hogan’s since then, donating the eight-side homes to the Southwest Indian Foundation, a nonprofit in Gallup, New Mexico.
“This whole experience gives me a more tangible image of what my career will hopefully look like and makes me excited for my future in the Air Force,” she said.
Second Lt. Randall Pietersen, a 2020 Academy graduate working toward a master’s degree at MIT, also provided oversite during FERL. He said his FERL experience as a cadet was “life changing.”
“It brought me into the CE career field, as it bridges the gap between theory and practice of all aspects of your officer development,” he said.
Cadet 3rd Class Richard Brown was setting up surveying equipment at the lab, June 10. He recognizes the “gap” between theory and practice includes space for some mistakes, but said the FERL course accommodates a cadet’s learning curve.
“The main takeaway from FERL is that is it OK to fail at something you’ve never done before,” he said. “We learn from our mistakes, take the advice of the CE mentors and apply it to the next activity.”
Civil engineering cadets and faculty members often use the term “hands on” when speaking about their projects, but it’s not just another turn of phrase for these cadets and faculty members covered in dust, sweat and dirt while working on their FERL projects.
“FERL is really where it all starts for cadets,” said Lt. Col. Mark Russell, assistant professor and FERL commander. “It’s an experiential learning experience no other academic major here offers and no one else gets at other schools. The hands-on learning experience in FERL provides a practical framework for analysis and design courses taken later in the CE major, hence the course’s motto ‘construct first, design later.’”
Projects cadets complete during FERL are graded and evaluated but FERL is also a “lessons learned environment,” the FERL commander said.
“No other academic major is so dedicated to hands-on learning from a cradle to grave perspective on their projects,” Russell said.
The Hogan project is an example of that cradle to grave ownership, Russell said, as “cadets are involved every step of the way, from designing, constructing, delivering and donating the Hogans to the Southwest Indian Foundation.”
In all, 67 cadets took part in this year’s FERL, including two electrical engineering majors.
“What we do here has implications for the entire Air and Space Forces, not just in the deployed environment,” Sloan said.