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CE cadets build homes for Navajo nation

A civil engineering mentor works with two cadets during construction of a Navajo home. Photo by Bill Evans

A civil engineering mentor works with two cadets during construction of a Navajo home. Photo by Bill Evans

By John Van Winkle

Academy Public Affairs


Academy civil engineering cadets are getting their hands dirty to build homes for the Navajo Nation and gain practical engineering experience in the process.

It’s all part of the Academy’s Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory, better known as FERL.  This summer Civil Engineering 351 course which exposes cadets to many aspects of civil engineering, including surveying, welding, heavy equipment operation, steel bridge construction, designing and pouring concrete beams, road paving, and more.  The course combines 93 cadets from USAFA, West Point, ROTC and the Coast Guard Academy with 23 faculty and 67 engineer mentors from around the Department of Defense and puts the cadets through 23 different civil engineering functions in a “build first, design later” concept. 

The bulk of the cadets are at the beginning of their coursework in the civil or environmental engineering major, which makes FERL an invaluable course, said Major Anthony Barrett, a PhD-level instructor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who is serving as FERL’s officer-in-charge.

“When you’re in your academic instruction, if you can fall back on a tangible experience,  you end up integrating it a little bit more when you’re teaching it in the classroom, and so the theory is we get them in at the beginning of their civil engineering and environmental engineering curriculum, get them these tangible hands-on construction and civil engineering experiences, so as they see these through the next two years of the curriculum, and can tie back directly to their experiences here out there, and it enhances those experiences and allow them to internalize it a bit more,” said Major Barrett.

The course starts with two weeks at an active duty Air Force base working with that base’s engineers, learning hands-on engineering. Then the cadets return to USAFA to begin three weeks of field work in Jacks Valley at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s FERL site.

“Every single day, no matter what subject you’re working on, you can look back at something you did back here at FERL,” said Cadet 1st Class Damien Franz, back in FERL for his second time as the FERL commander.  “From the concrete beams, you learn about weak axises and you take that into steel design easy, we have our steel tree here that has all the connections we learn about in steel design class. It really brings the classroom like it allows you to visualize what the instructor’s teaching about in class. 

“Another example is a three-reservoir problem at FERL, which is one of the most common problems you’ll see on a hydro graded review or test at any university,” he said. “To actually be able to see it first hand and play with it, mess with it, learn from mistakes out here, it really really does help.”

The cadets coming in have little to no civil engineering experience, and will start taking the majority of the courses in their CE or environmental engineering majors this fall.  As the cadet flights rotate through the course, they are paired up with one of the engineering mentors to work side by side and learn CE firsthand by getting their hands dirty.

“So you construct stuff now, and in the fall semester of your junior year is when you really learn about what you did here, and why you did this or why did that, so I really think it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had at the Academy,” said Cadet Franz.

Much of the work during FERL goes to improving and upgrading the FERL complex.       

“I was here in the summer of ‘94 was the first FERL, and the only infrastructure out here was two concrete pads and a chain-link fence around some material yards,” said Major Barrett.

Since then the site has grown every year.  Today, FERL is a 50-acre complex in Jacks Valley with eight pre-engineering buildings, seven classrooms, a kitchen, all utilities, a high speed network, and even a volleyball court and half-court for basketball.

One addition this year is taking the hardback tents that FERL cadets stay in, and replacing those with new hardback billets.

“We showcase engineering in every step,” said Captain Jordan Hudack, FERL course director. “All 23 activities serve as a physical reference to what they’ll be doing in their academic courses later in their CE or environmental engineering majors.”

While most of the work performed at FERL goes to improve the FERL complex, there is one FERL project which is specifically designed to benefit others – the Navajo Hogans.

A Hogan is a traditional Navajo home, which is an eight-sided structure with the main entrance built facing east to greet each day’s sunrise. 

Cadets and mentors finishing up week two of a three-week span today, to build two complete hogans.  The Academy has been building the hogans since the 90s, and has gotten the construction of hogans down to a science.

“The biggest challenge is the fact that they have to be carried on 18-wheelers,” said Cadet Franz.  “That’s why they’re divided in half, so if anyone comes down here, they’ll see four parts of two houses under construction.”

Once the hogans are complete, these homes are declared surplus property. Via the DoD’s Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, the Southwest Indian Foundation takes ownership and eventual possession of the hogans.  The foundation arranges transport of the hogans to the Navajo reservation, which is located in the northwest corner of New Mexico and adjacent areas of Arizona.

When the dust settles on this year’s FERL, the Academy will have donated 31 homes to the Navajo Nation.

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