ACE Mentoring: Inspiring the Next Generation

Recognizing that representation matters, the architecture, construction, and engineering industry has made substantial progress in recent years in terms of increasing both gender and racial diversity.  As a profession we still have a long way to go, but these days we are doing a far better job of recruiting potential future architects among one important demographic in particular: the kids in our communities.

Working as a volunteer mentor for the ACE Mentor Program, a national organization which gives students hands-on experience in the architecture, construction, and engineering industries, I’ve been inspired by the students and our colleagues alike as we teach students about opportunities in the field. During the school year, we bring about 15 high school students into our office each week for structured activities on topics ranging from diagramming and programming to structures and MEP systems. We work with colleagues across disciplines to expose students to the work we do, and lead them in a team-oriented design project which lets them work with input from professionals in the industry to complete a start-to-finish design.

This intensive program has been valuable in expanding my perspective in so many ways, and I hope that the lessons we’re learning are as helpful for the students and their families as they are to the volunteers! Together we’ve explored the power of:

Bringing members together from across the industry. I’ve learned a lot from our mentors in other areas of the industry, and I’d like to think that they’ve learned a lot from me. We had a mechanical engineer on our ACE team last year, and we worked with the students on doing a diagramming exercise. After the lesson, the engineer said, “Wow! I had no idea that’s what you guys do!” Teaching each other about our processes helps us collaborate more effectively with every project.

Getting kids out of their comfort zone and willing to brainstorm. In a time when kids are given countless tests (and are in high school when you MUST be cool), we really struggle to get students to brainstorm, to shout things out, to say what they think out loud. I remember really struggling with that issue when I got to architecture school. Nobody wants to be “wrong” in front of their peers. However, often in architecture and other parts of the industry, there is no wrong answer. Every possibility is a valid option for exploration, and we really try to emphasize that with the students.

Recognizing that the industry may not be the right fit for some students, and that’s okay. Students may spend some time studying architecture, construction, or engineering and decide to choose another career path, but no matter what they’ll leave the program with an understanding and appreciation for what these professionals do. We as designers sometimes struggle to communicate to the public what we do and why it matters. Every student who explores the industry, however, will carry their knowledge of the value of design with them into the community.

Acknowledging that a four-year university isn’t for everyone. The cost of education is higher than ever, and the prospect of daunting student loans and a four-year time investment (let’s be honest, it’s a much longer process from matriculation to licensure for architects) doesn’t make sense for every student. Everyone’s career goals are different. We hold sessions at a local technical college to allow students to explore industry options which start with an Associate’s Degree or certificate program- a much more accessible path into the field for many students.

Connecting students with ongoing mentorship opportunities. Because ACE Mentors work in the industry, we know of so many opportunities that students and parents don’t. We’ve all been in the students’ shoes. We know about schools and scholarships and camps and where to get a job. We’ve had ACE students shadow professionals in our offices for a week, and several have landed paid internships in their field of interest.

No matter where students end up in their various career paths, this investment in our talent pipeline is time well spent, and helps to lay a solid foundation for whatever students pursue next.  Our ACE students will likely follow a wide variety of career paths; however, no matter where their professional lives take them, these students will have the benefit of this knowledge and experience in design thinking to solve problems in any industry. We mentors, of course, are inspired and excited by their curiosity and creativity, and our time with these students is a great opportunity to reconnect with the reasons why we entered the profession of architecture in the first place.

About Jenna

Architect Jenna Pye, AIA works extensively in LS3P’s K-12 practice area and leads the ACE Mentor Program for the firm’s Raleigh, NC office. Jenna earned a Bachelor of Architecture from NC State University’s College of Design, where she was selected for the prestigious Caldwell Fellows program for student leadership development and was a member of the University Scholar’s program. Jenna’s notable recent projects include designs for North Ridge Elementary School, Stough Elementary School, and NC State University’s Veterinary School masterplan in Raleigh, NC; and the Cary Academy Science Building in Cary, NC.