Architecture, engineering exercises shine at Ursuline

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Ursuline students with an interest in architecture and engineering now have opportunities for hands-on experiences in and out of the classroom through the school’s alliance with the national ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Mentor Program of America.

This year, Ursuline Academy juniors and seniors joined the more than 9,000 students nationwide from 1,000 high schools that participate annually in ACE. Ursuline is one of only two all-girls’ teams to work one-on-one with local volunteers and tour professional firms in each field.

Ursuline students have been meeting every other week for two hours a session with professionals in each field. To pinpoint a project to work on, they initially toured the school – taking pictures and surveying areas of the school they desired to be renovated. Suggestions came in for areas such as the upper floor walkways, restrooms, possibly repurposing storage areas and maybe adding a coffee café or bookshop. 

Reviewing photographs taken during the survey, ACE students also perused the school’s floor plans and brainstormed areas they loved and areas that needed improvement.

They decided to draft plans to renovate the lobby and repurpose the former orchestra and nursery rooms as a gathering place for students and possibly repurposing a nearby bathroom.

“They determined the pros and cons on how to use the school as people who are in the building daily,” architect Lexi Tengco, an ACE volunteer, said.

Enlightening experiences

On a recent morning Tengco and engineers Joe Starring and Jenny Renn Key reviewed with students a schematic drawing of a project Tengco had been working on. Then, they assessed a “bubble” diagram they had made – using trace paper on top of Ursuline’s floor plans – to see what their reuse of space could look like.

“How do you start,” asked Tengco of the girls. “That’s the big take away from schematic design. … What’s our program, our scope? We need to solidify that. How do you communicate that plan? It’s important for us to do our homework.”

They talked about adjacencies – rooms next to other rooms – to ensure that something like a bathroom wasn’t planned as the first thing one sees when walking into a room. Bubbles were drawn of possible locations of areas that might or might not flow well together “to figure things out. Bubble diagrams are helpful because you get an idea of size,” Tengco said. By doing this, students visualize direct connections of spaces. “It’s a diagram that can lead us to a floor plan.”

Jessica Baker, who is director of curriculum and instruction at Ursuline Academy and an AP computer science teacher, said the ACE class developed from discussions over the past few years on how best to strengthen Ursuline’s core STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program.

“Historically, we have had a strong math and science program,” Baker said, but the school wanted to enhance technology and computer science. As options were investigated, the ACE program materialized.

“We were looking for ways to bring authentic learning experiences where students were interacting with mentors in these industries,” Baker said. “ACE was a natural fit. We’re making our program come alive for girls by bringing in individuals who are doing this day to day.”

Students will present their project at an end-of-year banquet, said Christy Zurcher, Ursuline’s director of communications.

“This is a pilot program,” Zurcher said. “We’re hoping it will grow (among lower high school grade levels in the future). A lot of girls are interested now.” 

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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