While architects Leah Wolkovich-Quartey, Josephine Penta and Megan Carriere all volunteered as ACE Mentors during the 2020-2021 school year, they haven't had the chance to sit down and discuss their volunteer experiences with one another. Recently these three Finegold Alexander colleagues held a Teams meeting to share their thoughts on this one-of-a-kind program, which introduces high school students from the Greater Boston area to architecture, construction, or engineering through a hands-on design project. What follows is a roundtable discussion about their work at ACE Mentor Program.
How ACE Works
Q: How does the ACE Mentor Program work? Are you matched one-on-one with a high school student? And how often do you meet?
Megan: Ace Mentor is a national program with chapters throughout the country. Massachusetts has a few, we all participated in ACE Greater Boston. We're not matched one-on-one with a student, and technically you always have to have at least two mentors in a group if you are with a single student. This helps create a safe environment for the students. Multiple students apply to the program, and then they are divided among locations, because in a non-virtual year, they'll go to different locations one day during the week, like an after-school program.
Q: But this past year, how did ACE function?
Leah: It was the same concept. But instead of having physical sites, we had virtual ones. Students were assigned to a specific time slot which was a little bit shorter than the live sessions in previous years.
Josephine: Being all virtual this past year definitely made it easier to participate and I would imagine resulted in a higher attendance for both mentors and students alike. In the past, when this took place at physical sites, people probably chose a site based on location – whichever is closest to them, because ACE can require several hours a week of commitment when done in person.
Q: Did your students complete the residential design project? How did it go for you all?
Leah: It was an interesting process. This was my first year volunteering with ACE, and I was anticipating that each student would do individual projects. But it was a group process. So, it was really interesting to get 10 or 12 students to collaborate on one project… especially working virtually.
Megan: Each year the design program is developed in the summer, which is then distributed to the sites; the mentors talk about it beforehand. The students at each site are responsible for producing their interpretation of that program. The program is not always a residential project. ACE tries to make it something all the students can really relate to.
Q: Were there construction students and engineering students at each site, as well as design students?
Leah: Yes, we have mentors that represent each of the disciplines. So, there's mechanical, electrical, plumbing grouped together; structural, architectural, and construction management. And the students all had to submit their priorities for which groups they wanted to join. Also, the first half of the program, the mentors did large group presentations as an introduction for the students. And then the second half of it was having the students focus on their residential project.
Josephine: In my group, a good chunk of the kids gravitated towards architecture. And from what everyone in my group said, that sounds pretty typical.
Megan: It really depends, because students will come in saying, I like architecture, but I think I'm actually really interested in figuring out how structure works. So, you know, sometimes there ends up being an even distribution of students’ interests.
Leah: And it's open to freshmen through seniors. We had some students who were repeats as well. I think there were a few students who did one discipline last year and they chose to do a different one this year. They can branch out a little bit and learn about different disciplines.
Breaking Out of the Silo with Virtual Collaboration
Q: That's fantastic. And what about the kids working together? Was there collaboration between the mechanical group and the architecture group?
Megan: In my group, for instance, they'd be like, Oh, I wonder what they're doing over there. And we'd say, well, let's just go crash their breakout room… and we go into their breakout room and say, what do you think about this fire pit over here? Or at the beginning of the session, one discipline would do a presentation, and then you get questions from the other students. We were keeping it as open as possible, so everyone's not just designing in a silo. We encouraged the students to do a lot of the talking and the presenting. All of the students were really great! They all brought ideas to the table.
Josephine: That's great, because my group was more timid. As mentors we had to push and ask, you know, many questions, and we asked them to bring stuff in on some weeks, but they were still very shy about it. They opened up more towards the end, and there were a couple of students that were more vocal.
Q: And what about the project?
Josephine: We gave them the opportunity to select whatever type of residential building they wanted. In the first sessions we discussed the site, and the different types of residential complexes. The students had a strong desire to do townhomes, like row houses. So that's the path that we took. Townhouses fit with the site that we chose, which worked out well.
Q: And then how did the students’ work get documented each week?
Megan: Ours was mentor-led, and so we had a couple of mentors who set up a SketchUp model for the group. The students and mentors were often sharing screens and talking about materials. We held a session on materials, and another session just on massing. Similar to Josephine's group, our group designed townhouses. We talked about how many townhouses, their size, and we looked at the scale on the site. We used the SketchUp model a lot. Generally, the expectation was that the work is always done within the session, without homework assigned. This is meant to be an outlet for creativity, working through a project and understanding the whole design process.
Josephine: That's a great idea, we mainly stayed on Google Jamboard, which is similar to Conceptboard. Everyone did sketches on this, both mentors and students alike. But the idea of a mentor running a program like SketchUp, during the session, is a good one.
Leah: We did a hybrid between the two, really, so our peer lead mentor was super active. She built the Revit model that she shared during the session, and she would take notes on the plans. But we also used MURAL, a digital workspace, a lot. When we were doing some early massing, we used MURAL, we also used that to share inspiration images. And that's where our students got most involved because they could save sticky notes on it. Our group overwhelmingly chose a tiny home.
Q: So Leah, did your group come up with a single tiny home model?
Leah: Yes, it was just one tiny home… It was interesting to talk with the students, because they thought a tiny home was going to be easier. But they suddenly realized that it involved more problem solving because they didn't have as much space to work with, they had to choose their priorities.
What Students Care About
Q: What issues are important to this generation of students?
Josephine: Sustainability of course came up, which was great. It was impressive to hear some of them talk about it… Of course, another one was the pandemic and quarantine this year, a lot of them were talking about having space in the house for an office and extra room to use as a little study.
Leah: Because my group designed a tiny home, there was a huge emphasis on outside space. Our civil group loved it, because they had pretty much the whole site to do whatever they wanted. So, they designed a sport court and a firepit.
Josephine: We have one too!
Leah: A huge thing that's come out of the pandemic is the fire pit, this new place that people can gather safely, everyone's outside, it's easy to make your own space.
Josephine: Inside, the extra room for an office and outside the firepit space. So, you can have people come over and gather with groups outdoors. Those are some of the post-pandemic things that we're seeing.
Megan: In my group, we had a couple students that were always asking about the impact of the design not only in sustainable terms, but also just the environment in general... Our MEP group did a breakdown of all the systems, what they chose and why; looking at their environmental impact. It was all-electric with a ground source heat pump… it was great!
Learning for Students and for Mentors
Q: What did you learn from being a mentor?
Megan: From doing this for a few years, I appreciate all the different points of view that come up during these sessions, and what really matters to students. Also watching them understand things in multiple dimensions …watching them fully understand how to read drawings, or how to understand space. It's always exciting to see students evolve. The best part of this is watching them present at the end of the session and being proud of the project that they created. That is the best moment! They're so proud of what they've accomplished, and they should be because they put a lot of work into it.
Leah: I had one student who didn't turn their mic on the entire session. And always, if we needed to get a response from them, we'd say okay, you could put it in the chat. That's fine. We'll work through the chat… And behold at our final presentation, this silent student turned their mic on and presented their whole slide. And it was the first time I'd heard their voice, and it was incredible! These moments are just amazing. It's hard to put words to them.
Josephine: We also did many exercises at the beginning for the students to understand what architectural drawings are, what plans are, what elevations are…before we got into actual building plans, we took it a few steps back with fun exercises, bringing it back to basics. It reminded me of how you start when you first step into college, for instance. And so, it was fun having some of those moments come back to me.
Q: What got you interested in participating in the ACE mentor program?
Josephine: For me, just within Finegold Alexander these past few years I've been a liaison for our interns. Typically, we'll get a school student or someone interning from college for a co-op semester. I’ll help manage their schedule while they're with us, making sure that they're getting a wide range of experience because we want them to be exposed to a lot of different things that are happening in the office. So, I started to dip my toes into mentoring and wanted to explore more options. Absolutely!
Megan: Initially I got involved with ACE years ago… It was great to help promote architecture and the design industry, to high school students that might not necessarily get that exposure. I went to a high school that had an architecture program, and I felt very lucky to be able to go there… But I know not everyone has that. And so, ACE Mentor Program is a really great opportunity to expose high school students to design and helping students think differently about potential career paths. I just really loved ACE Mentor Program.
Leah: When I was younger and trying to decide what to do for a living, I was trying to choose between architecture and teaching. And teaching has just always been a part of my life that I've loved. I assisted a dance class when I was 10; I did a mentorship program in college that was architecture for kids… When I rediscovered ACE this year in Boston, I was excited to actually get to see it happen. And I'm glad that I did.
Q: It's a long path for students to get educated and to get a toehold in the AEC industry. I just want to commend you all for what a great year you had with ACE Mentor Program!
Megan: It’s a privilege to be part of the process of students understanding design. It's exciting! It's always really great to see students take ideas and run with them, they take ownership of everything they talk about.
Leah: It was easy in this pandemic year to get bogged down with the daily routine. And then to see these students learn and grow and get excited… it was great for us as mentors! They reminded us why we got into the field in the first place. They would ask us: What do your firms do? Why do you enjoy architecture? Hearing the mentors share their stories helped build community with the other mentors, and with the next generation. Because hopefully, they'll be our coworker someday!
Josephine: Everything that both Leah and Megan said, I totally agree with. It's being part of the next generation… and it's refreshing! And then, we get to show students some of our work and they get excited. So, ACE Mentor Program really is just all of us helping each other out. Architecture can be a challenging industry, and if we can help the next generation—or help each other in any way—it’s an exciting idea, and I’m proud to be a part of that.
For more information on ACE Mentor Program, please visit:
To see the 2020 ACE design challenge, as well as participating firms in the Greater Boston area: www.acegreaterboston.org/about-us/