By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Jacob Thomas is considering a career in engineering and made his first pitch for building a restaurant Wednesday.
The St. Joseph High School junior was one of a handful of students to take part in the new ACE Mentor Program that was developed by Pearson Construction in Benton Harbor. The six-week pilot program is designed to encourage students to pursue careers in architecture, construction management and engineering.
Students have gathered in a physics lab at the school since April, learning the different roles that come with construction and engineering. Thomas said he became interested in the field after attending an architecture camp when he was young.
“I knew I liked it and wanted to see if this was really for me,” Thomas said. “I didn’t realize how big of a scale architecture was. I thought it was just drawing, but you have to take into account the weak points of a structure and talk with the client to understand their views.”
The ACE Mentor Program is not only at a local level. It serves as a national nonprofit organization with chapters throughout the United States. Only a few are in Michigan with the majority being near Detroit.
Trace Volpe, a director of business development at Pearson Construction, serves as the program’s lead mentor and facilitator of the St. Joseph chapter.
Volpe said he and a few of his colleagues approached St. Joseph Public Schools with the concept. School officials then asked Volpe to develop a pilot program for the remainder of the school year.
“When we learned about this program last fall we knew that we wanted to establish a local chapter,” Volpe said. “The high school administration has been great to work with on ACE. They promoted the program, provided a classroom, and we had 10 students sign up in the first couple of weeks.”
Volpe said the goal is to make it a 15-week program with the possibility of working with Benton Harbor and Lakeshore schools.
St. Joseph students have met for two hours every Wednesday since mid-April.
In that time students were assigned to teams led by volunteer mentors from firms representing architects, construction managers, engineers and owners.
The pilot program mentors include Daniel Bacchiocchi from Lakeland Regional Health Systems, Arvin Delacruz from Abonmarche, Arunas Rumsa from TERA Architects, and Sean Ebbert and Volpe from Pearson Construction.
Each student team went through the design and construction process learning various skills along the way. In addition to classroom meetings, the team went on a field trip to a construction site and visited an architect’s office.
During Wednesday’s session, students had the opportunity to pitch to one of the mentors who posed as a client interested in building a hot dog restaurant. While the students’ client chose a plan, it turned out to be significantly over budget. A few students recommended a leasing option that would save money and give their client/mentor an opportunity to expand later on.
While the class and their client were left at an impasse, senior Olivia Clancy said she walked away with an idea of what architects and engineers go through.
Clancy said among the more surprising aspects of the program were real-life problem solving and critical thinking.
“There was more architecture than I expected,” Clancy said. “Most of the stuff I thought engineers do, they don’t do. Architects pull in a lot of the responsibility.”