Strong Finish to the School Year for Green Building Interns
With every crisis, resilient individuals emerge to lead and inspire others. Resilience has long been a core value that guides EcoRise staff in fulfilling our mission to ignite a new generation of green leaders. So, when the coronavirus began disrupting plans for the Green Building Internship Program, which launched in Austin, Texas, this year, we were ready to practice resilience. Beginning in March 2020, as schools were shuttered to reduce the spread of the virus, EcoRise staff and our partners at BLGY Architecture and the University of Texas School of Architecture (UTSOA) quickly transformed the internship program from field-based experiences into a leading-edge remote workforce development program that continued to effectively support and empower this first cohort of students to prepare for careers in sustainability and green building.
Since the pilot program launched in December, EcoRise and our partners have been working with six interns to give them hands-on experiences in the green building industry. The interns’ activities centered around a new school building under construction for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), Blazier Intermediate School. BLGY Architecture, a leading sustainable design firm that specializes in green and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified schools, saw this new building project as an opportunity for meaningful, real-world, hands-on instruction. BLGY Vice President Sita Lakshminarayan and her team successfully coordinated LEED workshops, building site tours, and Lunch-and-Learn events with industry representatives for the interns to gain a breadth of understanding about green building. With the integration of research, tours, collaboration, and presentations, as well as opportunities for students to ask questions, students experienced a window into the realities of the industry from practicing green building professionals.
In addition, the internship helped inspire and instill a deep civic commitment among students who are traditionally underrepresented in energy, green building and design, and construction fields. Dr. Miriam Solis, Assistant Professor in the Community and Regional Planning program at UTSOA, and her knowledgeable team helped direct and expand this effort by hosting seven workshops for the interns that emphasized the relationship between culture and the design of the built environment; the influences of race, class, and gender on architecture; and navigating university and professional opportunities post-graduation. Per Dr. Solis, “One of the successes of the program has been the students’ growing knowledge of how culture informs and is informed by architecture.”
On March 13, 2020, AISD and the University of Texas cancelled campus instruction. Dr. Solis and her team were scheduled to lead a tour of the UT campus for the interns that date. As it became clear that both campuses would remain closed for the remainder of the school semester, this event and all other in-person events were cancelled. Staff from EcoRise, BLGY, and UTSOA worked quickly to replace those hands-on learning experiences in the field with relevant and meaningful digital experiences.
For example, interns completed their tour of UT virtually, exploring how gender and race have affected the geography and architecture of the campus via a digital Racial Geography Tour. One intern, Sophia, a senior at Akins High School with plans to study mechanical engineering at UT Dallas this fall, explained that the tour helped her understand that the design and placement of buildings can reflect cultural values and norms, “I looked over the original UT Women’s Campus… and I noticed how gender and race trends have influenced the layout of UT.” Presentations and Lunch-and-Learn activities were also successfully moved online.
Another virtual experience included a challenge from BLGY to research, identify, and describe opportunities and recommendations for BLGY to acquire LEED Innovation points for the new Blazier Intermediate School building. The culminating event of the internship happened on May 12th, when interns virtually showcased their recommendations to a group of green professionals from AISD, BLGY Architecture, the City of Austin Office of Innovation, and Studio8 Architects. One attendee reflected, “Thank you for lending your energy and curiosity to the internship. The skills and views you brought to the program can enhance not only the Blazier project but operations at other schools as well. Well done. I wish you the best of luck in your pursuits!”
EcoRise is extremely proud of this first cohort of Green Building Interns. They took full advantage of a program designed to help them better understand the three-pronged approach to economic development that considers people, the environment, and economics and how by considering this “triple bottom line” they can influence and improve the built environment for a more sustainable future. We also want to issue a hearty “Congratulations!” to the interns who each graduated this May. Several of the interns hope to secure paid green building internships this summer and then go on to study and work in fields such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, or architecture, bringing what they learned this school year to whatever profession they pursue.
The Green Building Internship program helps facilitate an equitable pathway to green jobs that will promote climate and community resilience via green building and climate science instruction, ingrain civic action strategies in young professionals, and provide a pathway to career opportunities in industries that currently have underrepresented numbers of women and people of color. The pilot program was funded by Glimmer Austin and the City of Austin’s Office of Innovation. We are immensely grateful to the team of partners who committed to working with EcoRise to offer this innovative new internship model and actively participated as we reshaped the program to continue meaningful instruction despite the coronavirus upheaval. We are thrilled to announce that the program will continue with current plans to expand the program to 10 schools across Central Texas in the 2020–2021 school year. Visit www.ecorise.org/greenbuilding to learn more about the program.