How 9 Teenagers Tackled a Major Infrastructure Problem Through the ACE Mentor Program

by Patrick Sisson
- Jun 22 2016 - 4 min read
ace mentor program rendering of Unity Bridge Orange Park High School
Rendering of the Unity Bridge plan. Courtesy Orange Park High School in Orange Park, Florida.

Anybody who has driven across creaky bridges or ridden on pockmarked roads can agree: This country is in the midst of an infrastructure crisis. Roads, bridges, and rails, underfunded for decades, desperately need funding and a new generation of engineers to help rebuild the U.S. transportation network.

The funding gap, according to the American Society for Civil Engineers, is an incredulous $4 trillion. Luckily, there’s a new generation of engineers primed for this and other challenges. And if they’re anything like the team at Orange Park High School in Orange Park, Florida, the future of infrastructure may be in good shape.

Mentored by teacher Doug Barrows and volunteers, including local mechanical engineer Joseph DeMarco, the team of nine aspiring architects and engineers recently finished third in a nationwide architecture and engineering competition held by the Construction Industry Round Table (CIRT) and ACE Mentor Program of America.

ace mentor program Rendering Unity Bridge 1
Rendering of the Unity Bridge plan. Courtesy Orange Park High School.

ACE provides students with real-world mentors from the architecture, construction, and engineering fields. And with hard work and help from their mentors, the nine students submitted a plan for Unity Bridge, a high-tech, multilane span over St. John’s River. Designed to alleviate traffic in the fast-growing city of Jacksonville, Florida, the bridge incorporates elaborate and incredibly accurate details. (The students chose the bridge project over the competition’s options to design a resilient waterfront or outline a historical renovation plan.)

“We wanted to design something that benefited our city, since a lot of the infrastructure is getting older,” says Destiny Childress, the team’s 17-year-old project coordinator and LEED researcher. “There’s more of a need for new bridges in Jacksonville, compared to the other projects.”

Orange Park High School has been involved in the ACE Mentor Program—which engaged 8,000 students across 50 states and Puerto Rico at the national level this year—for 10 years, with last year’s team also reaching the finals and taking home a $2,000 prize for designing a conceptual health-care clinic. At a time when encouraging STEM learning has become a focus for many science educators, this dedicated, industry-wide offering gives students a unique opportunity to work with real budgets and create detailed plans.

ace mentor program Rendering Unity Bridge 2
Rendering of the Unity Bridge plan. Courtesy Orange Park High School.

The students worked 20 hours a week from September to February designing and refining their bridge concept and sharpening software and presentation skills. According to DeMarco, during career shadowing, students who go through the mentor program and design competition can talk to professional engineers and “be in the same room and have the same conversation.”

“The ACE Mentor Program is one of the best kept-secrets around,” says CIRT President Mark Casso. “It’s unique in how wide the net has been cast to support and energize the next generation to come into the industry. The mentors give the kids a real sense of the industry, right down to the deadlines. I believe the program is filling in the gaps educationally while empowering students with the realization that they are capable of doing something that can make a difference.”

ace mentor program Rendering Unity Bridge 3
Rendering of the Unity Bridge plan. Courtesy Orange Park High School.

The Unity Bridge offers an incredibly thoughtful, comprehensive plan, including traffic modeling and multimodal transportation. Inspired in part by the work of Santiago Calatrava (specifically the asymmetrical, single-mast Puente de la Mujer Bridge in Buenos Aires, Argentina), the student’s design includes spiraling walkways, pedestrian paths, and a track for the Jacksonville Skyway monorail. The bridge incorporates 10 lanes of traffic that will help alleviate congestion in the city’s dense riverfront districts, especially around the Hart Bridge Expressway and Martin Luther King Boulevard. It also helps connect Skyway routes—in effect closing the loop, linking disparate lines on either side of the river and creating a more efficient public-transportation system.

“It gives you an understanding of how the technology works and introduces you to people in the field,” says 16-year-old Liam DeMarco (Joseph DeMarco’s son), who helped with design, modeling, and software. “It’s really a way for us to let others know that we’re dedicated to what we’re doing.”

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Rendering of the Unity Bridge plan. Courtesy Orange Park High School.

Team member Michael Mancil, 16, reached out to Autodesk and obtained software donations, which proved to be one of the most valuable aspects of the design process. It enabled the team to learn how to use industry-standard software such as Autodesk Revit, InfraWorks 360, and 3ds Max and get invaluable real-world experience. Most engineers don’t learn complex design software until college, and the Orange Park team—also comprising Brian Reed, Tom McClymont, Michael Nee, Christopher Osborne, Natalia Cordero, and Camden Dean—has already used them for an entire project cycle in high school.

The team’s third-place finish—which earned them a $2,000 prize—at the recent award show in Washington, DC, was a gratifying end to the project. The benefits of the competition will continue to enrich their potential professional lives: Liam DeMarco has a better idea of what career he wants to pursue in college; Childress praises the networking opportunities; and Mancil now has an internship at an architecture firm, thanks to his real-work experience.

And most important, the competition bolstered the students’ sense of self-worth, according to Mancil: “We did in six months what it takes some real companies to do in three years, and we’re high school students.”

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