A Publication of WTVP

As the state of Illinois seeks to become increasingly competitive in preparing tomorrow’s workforce—especially in the vital fields of science, technology and education—businesses can play a key role in partnering with institutions at the primary, secondary and higher education levels. Productive partnerships that connect students with “real world” professionals and job settings offer a high-impact experience and a meaningful glimpse into future careers.

Several Peoria-area schools and universities have tapped into partnership opportunities with local businesses and industries, leading to engaging workshops and guest lectures, office and jobsite tours, and hands-on, career-focused experiences. These relationships benefit everyone involved: students learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills and gain broad exposure to important fields, while businesses have a chance to help educate and motivate a bright and talented future workforce.

Project Lead the Way
Anne Fox, a teacher and program director for Project Lead the Way (PLTW) at Richwoods High School in Peoria, understands firsthand the impact that PLTW partnerships can have on students. Now in her third year of running the program at Richwoods, Fox says that her students are not only learning about different fields of engineering, they are learning “valuable critical thinking skills and life knowledge.”

Richwoods High School’s PLTW program has an active partnership with the local architectural and engineering firm of PSA-Dewberry. Employees from the firm have visited the school to explain their profession and describe their roles in designing projects. “Students are gaining knowledge of what they will do after high school,” says Fox. “It has brought up some wonderful discussions in class. Interest in our program is growing steadily—in our first year, we had 20 students, and now we have close to 90.”

Fox also points out that the relationship with PSA-Dewberry has led to additional partnerships and connections with other institutions and businesses. “We have established community ties with Bradley University, and have been able to connect with Caterpillar as well,” she says. “We visited the Bradley campus and toured the building projects that are going on there. We were able to ‘connect the dots,’ in a sense, and go from how projects are designed to seeing them under construction. With the budget precautions that schools are facing across the nation, these are important ways to show support for our youth and help them prepare for the future.”

Another school benefiting from an important community partnership is the Washington Gifted School. Through Peoria School District 150’s Adopt-A-School program, approximately 120 seventh and eighth graders at the school benefit from a longstanding partnership with PSA-Dewberry that includes annual architectural tours, science fairs and professional roundtables that examine community-based research projects.

Other joint activities include a mini-golf event in which PSA-Dewberry’s architects and engineers provide professional feedback on the design and constructability of a mini-golf course, and a bridge design program through which architects and structural engineers consult on student-designed projects.

Tracy Prescott, a teacher and Adopt-A-School coordinator, points to the architectural tours of the city, along with discussions of Peoria’s architectural heritage, as a program highlight. “For more than 20 years, Washington Gifted School students have learned about the history and the culture of their city from the professional insights of the architects of PSA-Dewberry. Even more important, these architects have demonstrated for our students their own love of Peoria history and appreciation for the businesses and families that left the many enduring structures that make our city so beautiful.

“All of us at Washington value programs like this,” Prescott continues. “These employees are willing to share their professional lives and values with our students. When adults are willing to educate students about real-world experiences, they plant seeds that will bear fruit in the future. Not only will all of our students remember their architecture tours, in years to come they may be inspired to volunteer in a similar way when it is their turn to be the local professional with something important to share.”

SynergiCity: A Win-Win for Students and the City
Another partnership that has proven productive for everyone involved centers around an initiative called “SynergiCity.” This innovative program connects graduate students from the University of Illinois School of Architecture with PSA-Dewberry design professionals as the students explore ideas for revitalizing Peoria’s historic warehouse district.

Conceived by University of Illinois professors Paul Armstrong and Paul Kapp, who are now collaborating on a book about the program, SynergiCity requires students to spend a semester studying the history of the riverfront downtown area and then create their own plans for redevelopment. The program culminates in a design charrette and final presentations attended by city representatives, local developers and area business owners. Students also have an opportunity to interact with PSA-Dewberry professionals and visit the firm’s office, which is set in one of the restored warehouses along the Illinois River.

“It’s great to get our students into a real-world setting,” says Paul Kapp. “Coming to PSA-Dewberry’s office and being in the hub of day-to-day operations is a big benefit. Hearing design professionals talk about their work is helpful—the students get a fresh voice and a chance to see where they’re going in terms of their careers. It’s a great experience.”

Kapp notes that the students’ redevelopment concepts and presentations are also valuable to the city, providing new ideas and inspiration. “The issues that we explore as student designers have been kicked around for years in Peoria. But the students approach this purely from a design perspective—they don’t have a political or economic agenda. They have strong ideas based on the potential they see—it’s a win-win for everyone.”

“Our involvement not only provides different dimensions to the learning process, but we know it also benefits our employees, our industry, our community and our economy now and for years to come,” says Ray Lees, a principal in the Peoria office of PSA-Dewberry. “We view it as an investment in the future for all who participate. It pays off by generating awareness of the opportunities open to students in the marketplace. This will assist them in selecting educational and career paths leading to productive and enriched lives. We value our relationships with these educational institutions and look forward to continuing our assistance and mentoring role—it just makes good business sense.” iBi

C.L. Taylor is a writer who specializes in architecture and engineering.