ACE Mentor Chicago: Top AEC firms collaborate to build future workforce


PJ Kilcoin, project manager for Power Construction, stands authoritatively at the front of a large 28th floor boardroom at the sleek Loop office of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and delivers a lengthy directive to four teams comprised of high school students and their mentors — experienced construction, architecture and engineering professionals from top Chicago firms (Lend Lease, Turner Construction, Perkins + Will, Gilbane, HDR and AECOM, to name a few) — who volunteer their time every week as part of the Chicago ACE Mentor Program, which seeks to inspire students to pursue careers in design and construction:

PJ Kilcoin

You and your team have been tasked with building a model structure that must conform to the following criteria:

The model must be able to span a minimum of six inches between two books and cannot be permanently attached to the testing surface. The model must be able to hold an imaginary 4”x4”x4” solid cube within the structure. Two sides are to have windows that are at least 3”x3” and no structural members can obstruct this open space.

You must work with a maximum budget of $125. You have 20 minutes to plan while awaiting your building permit and 30 minutes to build. You will be fined for each guideline that you fail to meet.

Delivered on a Wednesday night at 5:30pm to an audience who’ve already endured a long day of school and work, this sounds like a punishment. But the students — and their mentors — are psyched. They listen, alert and attentive, to Kilcoin’s directions, inserting the occasional laugh or “No way!” each time

Kilcoin throws another spanner in the works: There are only two hot glue guns. You must notify the supplier of your desired rental time and duration in advance.

As soon as the clock starts, the teams set to work. Clear leaders emerge — and they’re not the mentors. One student immediately begins sketching; another maps out the timeline. Mentors chime in, but only to gently guide, never to direct: “Of all of these items, which is most wall-like?” “The index card!” the students yell. “Remember what we learned last week… Which is the strongest shape?” “Triangle!” The mentors are helping, but the students run the show.

Giovanni Diaz,left, wprls with an AEC Mentor student on a LEGO Challenge
Giovanni Diaz, front left, works with an ACE Mentor student on a LEGO Challenge

A few blocks away, another team of ACE students and mentors gather at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) ArcelorMittal Design Studio. Scattered throughout the space are impressive LEGO structures — from a four-foot art deco skyscraper to a ‘traditional Greek sanctuary ’ — whose architects range in age from 8 to 93. For this challenge, each student must partner with a mentor to design and build a LEGO structure incorporating the abstract design concepts of texture, elevation, enclosure, and span. Final products are impressive, with highlights including a bird-shaped structure with a massive wingspan imagined as Twitter’s new corporate headquarters. When asked how the ACE students’ response to this challenge differs from that of others he’s worked with, CAF’s Teen Program’s coordinator Jesse Banwart says, “The ACE group grabs ideas and runs with them. It normally takes people a long time to get brave and comfortable enough with the LEGOs to start testing the structural limits. This group hopped into the project hoping to find the limits and see how crazy and impressive they can make their models.”

The teams at both sites complete their challenges remarkably, but it is the process itself — the dynamic collaboration between students and mentors — that stands out most profoundly. These students and industry professionals will meet every week for the entire school year, first coming to grips with the industry’s main principles and developing an understanding of each of the three ACE fields through a series of activities, presentations, and challenges like the ones just described, then ultimately conceptualizing, developing, and presenting a building design project from start to finish. The commitment is significant, but so is the reward. And while the students feel privileged to receive so much one-on-one time with mentors from the industry’s top firms, it’s clear the benefits go both ways.

Veteran Mentors

An ACE mentor for a decade, PJ Kilcoin has spent the past several years as ACE team leader for Power Construction. Kilcoin’s enthusiasm for the program radiates. Standing before the students and mentors, he manages to command respect yet also put the group immediately at ease. Though the focus is on the kids’ experience, it’s pretty clear that no one in the room has more fun than Kilcoin. He laughs as he throws another challenge curveball: “Uh-oh. Labor dispute. Now only women are allowed to use the hot glue guns.”

ACE Mentor students work with LEGOs at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) ArcelorMittal Design Studio


Although most teams do have a veteran mentor like Kilcoin, they are predominantly comprised of younger employees, many participating as ACE mentors for only their first or second time. Jacobs Engineering senior project manager and ACE mentor Chicago board chair, Mark Lucas, explains that it’s important to have a strong contingent of young mentors who the students find more easily relatable. “Guys like me,” he says with a laugh, are “just too old to mentor.” Among these young mentors are a special few who are also alums of the program.

Giovanni Diaz began the ACE Mentor program his junior year at the suggestion of his architecture teacher at Lane Tech in Chicago. Though his initial interest was in architecture, the ACE program helped him develop an understanding of each of the industries and helped him realize that he actually wanted to focus more specifically on engineering. This is a special component of program, Diaz explains. “Throughout the year, the students are expected to give their input as if they were a construction manager, architect or engineer. It really opens your eyes to what each discipline really does.”

Through ACE, Diaz was able to secure an internship at GSA (U.S. General Services Administration) out of high school. Thanks to his experience in the ACE program and an excellent experience as a GSA intern, he became confident in his desired education and career path at an age when many teenagers are still very uncertain. Eager to continue working with GSA through a co-op as an intern and student during college, he enrolled in a four-year program at IIT and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. Diaz credits his ACE experience with helping him throughout this program. “Through ACE I was able to learn construction common practices and methods. I definitely walked in a step ahead of the other students.”

Now in his third year as a full-time architectural engineer for GSA, Diaz has become an ACE mentor, serving as ACE team leader for GSA. Beyond the obvious career benefits he received from the program as a student, he credits his own ACE mentors, including Kilcoin, with helping him to become more social and confident, despite feeling intimidated by being around so many industry professionals. He says as a mentor he emulates the approach Kilcoin took with him. “PJ was so cool and relaxed — so easy to talk to, but also had so much insight. He was always giving us an insider’s view of what he was working on. And he was so committed to ACE. He never missed a meeting.” Diaz and Kilcoin remain in touch, and through ACE still see each other regularly.

Forging Lasting and Meaningful Connections

Kilcoin with ACE students and fellow mentors

Collaboration among Chicagoland’s top AEC companies in the ACE Mentor Program has real-world benefits outside the ACE meeting room. Mentors find themselves working alongside current and potential collaborators as well as competitors, opening the communication lines on everything from upcoming projects to staffing needs. Kilcoin recently mentored a student who developed specialized interest over the course of the ACE program and helped the student secure an internship with Mechanical Inc., an HVAC, plumbing and industrial contractor that does frequent work with Power.

Building a Future Workforce

Although the program’s primary focus is ostensibly to foster the education and development of its students — indeed, the program’s homepage proudly proclaims: “ACE Mentor Program participants graduate high school at a higher rate than their non-ACE counterparts” — its professional participants explain that they get back every bit they put in. Mark Iammarino, ACE Chicago board member and Turner Construction vice president, say that ACE came about because the top architecture, construction, and engineering firms got together and decided: ”We need to create our future workforce.” And it worked. Mark Lucas of Jacobs Engineering says without hesitation, “One of the best hires I ever made in my life came out of ACE Mentor.”

After 10 successful years, the program’s alumni now populate the nation’s top firms and are returning as mentors themselves both to give back and to help create new success stories.

Writer:  Brooke McDonald


  1. Nice story… and for a similar program geared to 6th. 7th, 8th grade students be sure to check out the Future City Competition;
    We’re currently registering teams/schools to compete.
    Deadline October 31

    and you’re invited (free) to the Regional Finals January 9, 2016 at the University of Illinois (Chicago) for a vision of the Future as offered by some of Chicago’s brightest students.
    Detailed information to be posted at:

    Editors Note:
    2015 Pictures:
    2015 Video:


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