A group of D.C. students got a close look at the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture this week, with the senior project manager giving an overview of the design and building phases of the three-tiered copper building and the artifacts it will house.
But when Charles Yetter started taking questions, the middle school students from Browne Education Campus were mostly curious about him. They peppered him with inquiries about his career as an engineer and how he came to oversee a major museum project.
“How did college or training prepare you for this job?” asked one student, a black portfolio open in front of her so she could take notes.
Others chimed in: How many hours a week do you work? Do you love your job? When will you retire? How many women work at your firm? What if you get fired — what else will you do?
The students are part of a pilot summer-school program called “D.C. Meets Washington” that introduces D.C. public school students to promising careers in the city and gets them thinking about life after high school. The program debuted as the school system plans to open seven new career academies in six high schools this fall with a focus on three growing industries: information technology, hospitality and engineering.
The summer-school program is designed to give students an early introduction to these and other fields. Educators say that high school is often too late to start talking about careers: It takes three years to complete requirements for some specialty academies, and students who set their sights on engineering after college, for example, need to have a strong foundation in early math.
The program also is meant to be a bridge to the professional side of the city.
“For too many of our students, D.C. is a much different place than Washington,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said in a news release. “It’s time to meld those worlds and ensure both that our students know about the exciting, demanding, fast-paced world around them and that these industries can think of DCPS students as future leaders who can one day help be at the helm of these powerful companies and organizations.”
The five-week program started with an introduction to government jobs and a tour of one of the city’s most familiar symbols of power: the Capitol. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) gave the students a tour of the House floor.
During IT Week, students visited an incubator for technology start-ups. And during Hospitality Week, they helped prepare for an event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Next week, students are scheduled to tour the new high school academies and colleges in the area.
Before their field trips, students meet with professionals; afterward, they reflect on their experiences in class and in journal entries.
On Monday, they had a visit from Michael A.O. Ajomale, a structural engineer who is working on the African American museum, which is expected to open in 2016.
He explained the difference between architecture and engineering, likening his work to building the “bones” of a building. The next day, the class headed to the Mall to see his work.
In a trailer on Constitution Avenue, students saw a model of the museum and compared art renderings with photographs of the work in progress. They saw a picture of the 70-foot-deep hole in the ground and passed around a heavy piece of reinforcing steel used to support the concrete foundation.
Educators say it’s hard to make career education feel relevant to 11- and 12-year-olds.
“When you ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ they all have at least one career” in mind, said Erin Bibo, the school system’s director of college and career education. “But when you ask them what they can do now, as a rising seventh- or eighth-grader, to further explore that career . . . you get a blank stare.” So it helps to make jobs feel more realistic, she said.
On Tuesday, students followed Ajomale outside the trailer to a bridge overlooking the construction site. Amid the sound of blowtorches, he pointed out workers putting in insulation and cranes maneuvering concrete pieces weighing thousands of pounds.
“All this work starts where you are now, with the math you are taking, like measuring and graphing,” said Lisa Anders, a vice president of McKissack & McKissack, an architecture and engineering firm. “We, as adults, actually use those skills to figure out how big that beam should be.”
As they walked back to the bus, Denise Bodrick, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Browne, said she loves science but doesn’t think she would like engineering.
“They have to be out in the heat, and it takes four years to make a building,” she said.
Amina Gasaway, a rising sixth-grader, said she isn’t sure about engineering. She’s thinking about becoming a video-game designer or a hairstylist. But she was excited about the field trip.
“I did something today that most kids can’t do,” Amina said. “I’ve walked past construction sites before, but today I got to go behind and see it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Michael A.O. Ajomale, Denise Bodrick and Amina Gasaway. It has been corrected.