The Next Generation of Architects, Contractors, and Engineers

The high school students touring Penn’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology were most interested in the part of the building many people never see: the mechanical room.

The students asked question after question, looking up at the massive white pipes that snake across the ceiling, carrying the conditioned and filtered air for “clean rooms” dedicated to some of the most delicate scientific research.

Speaking over the hum of the equipment was Christopher Montowski, director of building operations at the Singh Center.

“I started off my career working on jet engines in the Air Force, and now I’m running the building,” Montowski told the teenagers. “There are a lot of jobs you can do.”

The students on the tour, all from Philadelphia public and charter high schools, are enrolled in the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Mentor Program, a national organization with a local team sponsored by Penn. The group of about a dozen students meets at Penn every other week from November through May.

“Penn has a lot of experienced people working in this industry here in this department,” said Rafael de Luna, a project manager in design and construction with Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), and the ACE team leader at Penn. “We have the resources and we have the knowledge here, so we can hopefully influence some of these students to consider pursuing careers in these fields.”

ACE has helped me because it’s finally helped me narrow down that I want to be an engineer when I grow up.

Elijah Osman, sophomore at Hardy Williams High Mastery Charter School

During the year, the students listen to presentations from experts and tour buildings, including several on Penn’s campus. Especially engaging are the buildings under construction, such as Penn’s Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics on Walnut Street, and in the previous two years, New College House.

“We use the active building projects as tools. It’s like a living laboratory,” de Luna said. “For many of these students, it was their first time on a construction site. They got to see a project with not much in it but steel and concrete.”

The students also go to locations off campus, including the Finishing Trades Institute, where they can wear a harness and go up on scaffolding, and work with power tools.

“I hope that some of these students do go to college, and if they don’t go to college maybe pursue a field in the trades,” de Luna said.

  About a dozen Philadelphia high school students are enrolled in the Penn-sponsored ACE team.

About a dozen Philadelphia high school students are enrolled in the Penn-sponsored ACE team.

At the Singh Center, the students heard from several experts in the field in addition to Montowski, including Michael Dausch, FRES executive director of design and construction, and Susan Fry, FRES area manager of operations and maintenance.

“It’s one thing to construct a building. It’s another to operate a building,” Fry told the group while in the mechanical room. “For example, in a building as high-tech as the Singh Center,” she said, “the balance of humidity and the number of particles in the air are critical factors that must be controlled to maintain a proper research environment.”

The students then conducted an experiment using a psychrometer to measure the level of the humidity in the air.

“My favorite part was definitely when we tested the humidity in the air both inside and outside,” said Tyler Weidman, 17, a junior at the Universal Audenried Charter High School who has been in the ACE program for two years. “I’m more of a hands-on person. I love being able to do things myself to see how different things work.”

Many of the students said the building tours are the highlights of the program because they meet experts in their chosen fields and see aspects of structures they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to examine.

“ACE has helped me because it’s finally helped me narrow down that I want to be an engineer when I grow up,” said Elijah Osman, 15, a sophomore at Hardy Williams High Mastery Charter School. “I’m close to finally deciding what type of engineering field I want to study. I honestly don’t think that I would have decided that if I didn’t go to ACE.”

De Luna said he hopes to continue to grow the ACE program at Penn, now in its third year, by recruiting more mentors in the FRES department.

“Penn wants to be a part of the community,” De Luna said. “What better way to do it than to mentor some of the high school students in our neighborhood?”

Penn Singh Center for Nanotechnology

Homepage photo: Tours of Penn buildings, including the Singh Center, are part of the mentorship program Penn sponsors for Philadelphia high school students interested in architecture, construction, and engineering.

Photo at top: Christopher Montowski, director of building operations at the Singh Center, was one of several Penn experts who spoke to the Philadelphia high school students during the building tour.

  • Text by Louisa Shepard
  • Video by Rebecca Elias Abboud
  • Photos by Denise Henhoeffer