written by Jacob Loew, Graduate Structural Engineer

Making a Connection

Virtual setting – Real impact

The West Michigan Chapter of the ACE Mentor Program saw the completion of its 2021-2022 student cohort last month. Now in its third cycle since the chapter started in 2019, the program was hosted completely virtually over the course of the fall and spring, and culminated with a completed project entry to the 16th Annual CIRT Design Competition. An awards celebration and final presentation highlighted an incredible student-designed project and recognized outstanding students and mentors.

What is ACE?

“ACE” stands for Architecture, Construction, and Engineering. The free afterschool program for high school students interested in those industries or the skilled trades is hosted by local professionals. ACE as a broader organization boasts more than 75 affiliates (chapters) across 38 states and Canada and engages over 10,000 students annually. Those students are guided by over 4,100 industry professionals volunteering their time and expertise to mentor the teams of students through a 16-week simulation of designing and constructing a project. The yearly cycle concludes with a final student presentation of their design project and highlights their applied learnings and growth. The organization also hosts summer camps, offers internship opportunities, and awards approximately $2.5 million in scholarships annually.

What is ACE Mentoring?

Mentoring is a sharing of knowledge, skills, and experience to help another person develop and grow. Over the last two years, the West Michigan ACE Mentorship Program has been implemented in a virtual format. While challenging in many regards, mentors and students alike brought their new digital skillsets to the program and helped create an environment where genuine mentorship could happen. Mindful to not make the program yet another virtual class for the students, the team focused the format on smaller breakout sessions and intentional activities to garner engagement. The student response and results where incredible. This year, over 80% of the students had less than 2 absences. Forming friendships across 14 area schools, they worked in disciplinary teams to progress their specific work for the overall project. This year’s mentor team gained colleagues from additional local firms (OAK and TowerPinkster) and boasted a 1:1 mentor/student ratio. The discipline teams used online design and whiteboarding tools to virtually engage with each other through the processes, thinking, designing, and documentation necessary to complete the final project. Framing the work as the students’ first and foremost, the mentors were able to guide conversations and work sessions while giving the agency of design to the students. This bolstered students’ self-confidence and ownership as they worked through the design process and began to understand influences on the built world. In the end, and despite the obstacles inherent with virtual teamwork, this year’s cohort formed positive relationships with each other and mentors. They were dedicated to their work and showed up week after week to learn, be challenged to grow, and have fun. Their final Urban Renewal project is an impressive example of collaboration and empathetic design.

Ongoing Impact

Just as with real industry work, the final project presentation is a moment of triumph at the end of a long effort. It is also bittersweet because the energizing environment of collaboration with a team for a specific goal recedes to refocus on other endeavors. For ACE, many students are graduating seniors making the transition to work opportunities and higher education. Nationally, over 70% of ACE seniors enter college or skilled trades programs annually with an industry-related focus. Locally, the West Michigan Affiliate has 56 alumni and has provided $38k in scholarships for students pursuing degrees across the state and nation. More important than the dollars, though, is the sense. ACE mentoring makes good sense for students eager to explore their interests and options in the industry. The early exposure to such a wide range of disciplines within these industries opens minds to the numerous possibilities they could pursue. The educational primers act as a sampling tray to begin exploring throughout the program, and often much longer into their education and work lives. Personal connections made with industry professionals allow for candid questions and answers while developing communication skills. Many students write after graduating from the program to express their gratitude for the mentorship, valuable experience, and personal growth that they experienced. Two examples quoted below are from scholarship recipients from this year’s cohort: ​​​ ​​​​​​​
“Thank you so much for the opportunity to be a part of the ACE program! I learned so much about my possible career path (architecture) and was able to put it into practice in a fun environment with encouraging mentors.” Mackenzie N.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for not only your time, but your patience and dedication to not only teaching me, but my peers about the three disciplines that build our world from the ground up. I’m so grateful that I had the honor and privilege of being taught by the handful of mentors that you are. Regardless of how much time we’ve spent 1 on 1 or in a large group, all of you have had such a huge and positive impact on me not only the way I view the world of ACE, but also my passion towards pursuing my dreams of one day becoming a part of that community and workforce.” Ashton H.
As the years pass and the number of students who graduate from this program continues to rise, the positive impact grows in multitudes as these students enter the workforce and spread fresh energy for these industries among their peers.

It takes a village

This continual impact is not done by a single individual or even the mentor team in isolation. The support of the west Michigan community makes it possible to offer these opportunities and build a strong foundation of students entering the workforce. We are grateful to all our affiliate sponsors and to our tiered sponsors: Platinum: CSI Grand Rapids, Progressive AE Gold: Meijer, AIA Grand Rapids, Rockford Construction Silver: Steelcase As the chapter looks toward the future, we are excited to grow and continue finding new opportunities to serve the students of West Michigan. If you are interested in supporting or joining that endeavor, there are several ways to be involved:
  1. 2022-2023 cohort plans are already in the works to start in the fall. Contact us to learn more about applying as a student or volunteering as a mentor!
  2. One goal for the chapter is to continue growing our geographic reach. We are partnering with additional AEC firms to develop and diversify our mentor talent pool. We hope to add an additional module (team of students) in 2023-2024. Connect with us to find ways for your firm to be involved!
  3. Like the generosity of the sponsors listed above, financial support is both appreciated and necessary to provide the free programming and scholarship opportunities. Donations of any scale are helpful – thank you!

Connect with the West Michigan chapter online at:​​​​​​​