The Gibbs Spotlight: Dr. Matthew Reyes, Construction Science

GCA assistant to the directors Camille Germany (C), sat down with Dr. Matthew Reyes (M), Construction Science associate professor at OU! Matthew shared his journey to OU, his current projects, and teaching strategies! Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast.

C: Can you tell me a little bit about when and why you decided to pursue a degree in construction management and how you decided to go into academia? 

M: Sure. I started by working in manual labor in the construction industry. I started in construction by digging ditches. I worked on a retaining wall crew, and we dug out the ditches for the base course. Also, I ran equipment with them for a while. Then, while I was in college, I worked on a degree in Spanish at Texas A&M. For a while, I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I was pursuing that, and while I was there, I got a job as a general contractor after working on the subcontractor side for a few years. I worked directly for a superintendent on a large dorm project there in College Station. I got super interested in learning all the nuances of all the parts and pieces of the construction project because I had previously just seen one piece of it. I investigated it and wanted to get a little more education. I ended up getting a master’s degree in construction management and went to work for a general contractor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and did that for several years.

As far as how I got into academia or how I got interested in it after grad school, by default, I ended up doing some training on projects because, many times, I was the only person on the project management team that was bilingual. We needed orientations and safety training and things like that in both Spanish and English. When I started, I did not have all the requisite knowledge for training other people. It required me to really figure out how to do the things I was going to teach. I really liked investigating new things so I could teach others about them. 

C: Yes, that is awesome. You started working in the Gibbs College of Architecture in 2012. I’m wondering what drew you to the college and what made you want to work here? 

M: I had kept contact with a professor from graduate schools, Charles Graham. He was one of my grad school professors at A&M. We stayed connected over the years. One time we were talking, and he said, “Oh, by the way, I am now the Dean of the College of Architecture at OU. You’ve told me a few times that you want to possibly pursue a career in academia… you should come visit us.” Having been born, raised, and spent my entire life in Texas, I wasn’t so sure at first. He said, “Do me one favor, visit. I promise you; you will not want to leave.” I said, “All right. Deal.” I drove up here one day and hung out on campus to get to know a couple of construction science faculty. Dean Graham was right. I met great folks and really liked the place. I didn’t want to leave, so I started the application process immediately. What drew me here was a personal invitation, and then getting to know the people made me want to stay. 

C: Yeah, the people are great, huh?  

M: They are. 

C: You wear a lot of hats in the college and the Construction Science Division, including faculty advisor to student organizations, serving as a committee member, and teaching and research. Do you have a favorite hat, or what do you enjoy most about working here? 

M: My favorite part is teaching. We have awesome students that challenge me and ask questions about things that I have never thought of before. It is common for a student to ask a question and for me to say, “I have no idea; I have never even thought of that scenario. Let’s figure it out.” Sometimes it is a wild ride, admitting that you don’t have all the answers in front of a group and then hoping that you’ll figure it out on the spot, but we’ve got awesome students that really want to explore with us. I love teaching and being involved in student groups. Latinos Building the Future is a student organization that was just started completely by our students. I’m mostly there to help guide them through a few procedural things, but students plan the activities. I love seeing their energy and the passion they have for starting new things like that. It gives me a lot of hope for the future of our industry. 

Dr. Reyes working with students at summer camp.

C: Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ve also noticed that construction science students are real go getters; they really have the initiative to identify a problem and find a solution. 

M: Very much so; yeah. 

C: You teach a construction safety course, and you’re also conducting research projects on the topic. Can you tell me more about these projects and the grants and collaborations involved with them and as well as their impact on the industry?

M: There’s a project that Dr. Ghosh and I are working on, funded partially by a company and partially by the college. We are developing a series of short videos on construction safety topics, and we want to use them as training for industry workers. We want to offer some alternatives to quick toolbox talk sessions that are really common in the industry. These are short videos that are available for free. The ones we have completed are on YouTube in Spanish and English. The Latinos Building the Future (student group) helped us with the Spanish voiceover. They did an awesome job on that. Our vision for the videos is to have a whole database of resources that can be used. For example, say you’re going to be working on a roof, and you have some folks that are not familiar with roofing systems and how to install them and use them properly. They would watch this three- or four-minute video, and it would summarize it down to something that they can digest. There are some visuals, some text, and some audio that makes the information easily accessible.

C: Yeah, that’s neat that you’re bringing students into your research practice as well. That’s awesome. What other projects are you working on right now? 

M: There’s another one that Dr. Bigelow and Dr. Perrenoud, and I are working on. We are interviewing industry professionals and telling stories about some of the discrete processes they engage in when managing a project. With this project, we are offering training not through traditional slides and images, but rather through some folks that have a lot of experience in those things who tell stories about “this is how I do it… here’s an example of when I didn’t do it very well, and it went poorly. Here’s an example of when I did do it well, and we avoided some problems on it.” We did the first phase last year and got our first five videos posted. Now, we’re working on the next phase.

Dr. Reyes with his students during summer camp.

C: So the real-life experiences will help teach people how to do things better?

M: That’s right. If you can learn from someone else’s mistakes, why not take advantage of that? We found that this kind of storytelling angle really offers up an interesting way to deliver that content. 

C: Yeah, of course. What do you want alumni and future construction science students to take away from your work here at OU? 

M: I hope that our students develop a passion for construction. I hope that it is more than just a job to pay the bills, but that they really develop a passion for what it is. When I talk to prospective students, one thing I always talk about is that it is a unique industry. At the end of the workday, you can walk outside, and you can point to the thing you did that day. Most industries and most jobs are not like that. It’s really fun for me to drive around DFW and point out to my kids the projects that I worked on. I hope that our students develop a passion for that because we have that opportunity to say I created a functional thing in the world.

Another thing that I repeat a lot is how valuable relationships are in our industry. We want to make sure that we are technically proficient. Everybody understands that, but what sometimes gets lost is that people think that’s the only thing that matters. No one does a project alone. It is very much a large team effort, and it’s highly collaborative. The sooner they learn that it’s a relationship-driven industry, the better off they’ll be. I hope that our students develop excellent relationships and see the faculty as a resource and part of their network.

C: The students see this with you and your colleagues and your relationships as well, I’m sure. 

M: Yeah, I hope so.  I hope that all the students that come to my classes really understand that I care about them. I care about them as individuals, and I value the relationships we get to build. I feel very fortunate to get to be just one part of their time here while they’re in college. 

C: What do you see yourself doing in the next five or 10 years to aid in the growth and development of future construction science students? 

M: I want to continue doing a couple of things. One is encouraging and exploring new ways of learning. In my Ph.D. dissertation project, I studied how people go from thinking that they don’t know how to visualize something to actually learning how to build it. It explored how they make the transition and ways we can foster that learning. The other thing that I’m just really excited about is the Latinos Building the Future student group. I think there is a bright future for the students that started that group. The group intends to cast a wider net to tell the world about the design and construction field, what we do, and why we need them. We want everybody that may not know about us–Latino or not–to come check us out and see what we have to offer. We think we’re doing some cool and some fun things, and we want everybody to feel like they’re included and like they can be part of the team.

C: Yeah, that sounds it sounds like a very promising student organization and they’re off to a great start. Thank you for talking to me today!

M: Thank you for having me!

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.