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The Experiences of an ACE Mentor: Part V

by Shawn Balon, ASLA

What does it take to be an ACE Mentor? Over the past few years, I have always wondered how I could become an ACE Mentor, and as I embarked on ASLA’s career discovery and diversity initiatives earlier this year, I also decided to learn more about what it truly means to be a volunteer for the ACE Mentor Program of America, Inc. (ACE) ( Over the next several months, follow me as I journal my experiences as a professional volunteer at a local high school in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Since the last posting sharing another ASLA member’s ACE Mentor experience, students have continued learning from guest speakers in the built environment. The speaker participation has slowed down a bit, and students have been taking the time to focus on their final project. As I stated in my previous post, the students have decided to design a project that will include a hotel and casino component. They have broken into groups to take on different aspects of the project such as architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, LEED consulting, project management, interior design, and scheduling. The students are still working on pinpointing a site that they would like to work on, and after our recent class, we are almost there. It’s crazy to think that there are only four sessions left for the year and there is so much work to be done. I’m looking forward to seeing what the students research and bring to the table for their project during our next meeting.

In the meantime, it’s always good to keep the students’ minds stimulated when there are no guest speakers and the development of the final project continues. By doing this, the volunteers implemented a few hands-on activities into the semester schedule. Recently, we challenged the students to design and build a catapult with rubber bands, pencils, and a plastic spoon. We added a little twist to the challenge by asking the student teams to think about budgeting the project by placing a price tag on each item. For example, each rubber band cost $.025, each pencil cost $1.00, and the plastic spoon was $2.00. Students worked in small groups to draw a design and then begin constructing the design. I was quite impressed by some of the strategies the students attempted as I tried to wrap my head around how I would design and construct a similar catapult.

2018 ACE Mentor Part V - Students completing a hands-on activity
Students completing a hands-on activity
Image credit: Shawn Balon, ASLA

Once all of the student groups finished their catapults, the real competition began. We went into the hallway where each team was asked to launch an eraser from the catapult. Each team had three tries to evaluate which catapult would launch the farthest and have the best aim. At one point, the students were more interested in hitting us volunteers than aiming for the object in the middle of the hallway. After three tries, a winner was declared and the crunching of numbers began for each project’s budget.

In the end, each group completed the exercise with similar budgets. They ranged from $12.00 to $15.00, and the students soon learned that by spending slightly more, the infrastructure of their catapult was stronger. This exercise taught students how to think of a project in many ways. For example, you can spend a ton of money to create an extremely reliable catapult, but you can also creatively engineer a similar catapult at a lower cost. These are just a few of the items that the students will have to consider when developing their final project for the year.

2018 ACE Mentor Part V - Final product of the hands-on activity
Final product of the hands-on activity
Image credit: Shawn Balon, ASLA

I share this hands-on activity because it was fun for the students and also explores an exercise for professionals to use when visiting schools and youth programs. A PowerPoint presentation is not always the most enticing activity for certain age groups, so always keep in mind the audience you will be presenting to or working alongside. There are many ways we can stimulate the student mind, and I encourage you to research new activities or use this very same one when working with students to bring an entirely new perspective and understanding to the built environment.

Shawn M. Balon, ASLA, PLA, is Career Discovery and Diversity manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects. Questions? Feel free to send emails to

ASLA is a sponsor of the ACE Mentor Program, a national effort to engage high school students in substantive, in-depth projects and exercises that expose them to real-life work in the full range of design and construction professions. Why not get involved yourself? Visit to learn more on how you can apply to be a mentor in your area or how your firm or company can sponsor this program.

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