In 1993, Dan Keiser was working for a local architecture firm in Columbus, Ohio. As rewarding as he found the work, he dreamed of starting his own firm, one that specialized in designing spaces for churches and other mission-minded organizations. In fact, Dan was already getting regular “side work” in this vein through word of mouth, so much that it began to present a conflict for him—the last thing he wanted was to compete with another company while working for them.
Perhaps that is why a certain newspaper ad caught his eye. It was for a brand-new program run by the Eastland-Fairfield Career and Technical School, looking for instructors to teach a satellite program in Architecture and Construction Management at Gahanna High School. Known as ACM, the program was so new that it didn’t even have a course of study.
“I found that to be pretty exciting!” Dan remembers. “I could create my own course of study.” It presented an opportunity to get his own business off the ground, while at the same time fulfilling his passion for community engagement.
A Practical Head Start for Students
The only program of its kind in the state of Ohio, ACM filled a void in pre-collegiate education, equipping high school juniors and seniors with knowledge and skills directly related to the areas of architecture and design. The students spend two periods a day in the design lab, and are involved in design projects such as residential, bridges and high rises. The students are introduced to a variety of design tools that include manual drafting, sketching, CAD, model building, and 3D printing.
“From the Ohio Department of Education’s perspective,” Dan says, “there isn’t a course of study that covers architecture specifically. Architecture is an artistic profession, but it’s also very technical. It doesn’t really live well in the column of engineering, nor in construction—it’s nestled right between. We were able to navigate and create project-based learning for the students.”
Dan enjoyed his time teaching the students in the program, especially when he was able to show them how design can be used to help people and better the local community. When a local charity was looking for someone to build a playhouse for an auction, Dan thought it would be a perfect learning opportunity for his students.
“We brought in some area professionals, paired up into teams, and had a professional work with each team to design a playhouse. A panel judged the designs—when one was selected, our class collectively built that playhouse.” This unique hands-on project not only served the community, but garnered very positive visibility for the ACM program.
“That was my first ‘wow, this is way bigger than me’ moment.”
A strong foundational experience
The ACM program started with just a handful of students. But as the program evolved, it also grew in popularity—before long, Dan was interviewing and selecting students for each year’s ACM program. The program’s academic rigor increased, and a final senior design project was added to the syllabus. Graduating students had to identify and reach out to a mentor that would help them in their area of progression, work on their project over a three-month period, and end with a presentation to a panel of professionals.
Dan says this kind of exposure is normally reserved for a design student’s second year of college. “When I talk to alumni now—how did your first [project] review go?—they say, ‘Oh, it was easier than senior project.’ They’re going into college with their eyes wide open.”
In ACM, the kids have to be active participants in the program. They get exposed to that team-building very early. Teaming up and being an active participant is huge in the marketplace today.
In addition to the practical training, Dan says, the advantage these students received in preparing for college is difficult to overstate. Not only were they able to explore many career opportunities in the design and construction industry, but they got early exposure to the skills and environment that college and the workplace would require of them.
“A lot of what I experienced in high school, it was very much a ‘sit down and listen’ format. In ACM, the kids have to be active participants in the program. They get exposed to that team-building very early. Teaming up and being an active participant is huge in the marketplace today. I had a very small class in high school; when I went to Kent State, I was faced with 24,000 people who were different from me, and I was overwhelmed by that a little bit. But ACM provides a melting pot environment at the high school—you’re drawing kids from seventeen different districts that cover urban, suburban and rural environments. they’re getting a taste of college ahead of time. You had to partner with people from different schools and different backgrounds—kids who had never seen a cow were partnering with kids who were involved in 4H. You would have two lettermen jackets from different schools, who were going to play each other that night, sitting next to each other.”
Investing in the future of architecture
In over 15 years, the students that have completed the ACM program have gone on to have great success. The 200+ alumni work all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York and Miami. Dan says he himself has employed numbers “ACM’ers” over the years—two are currently on staff at KDG, and another will be coming on as an intern this summer.
For Dan, it’s very rewarding to see alumni from the program distinguish themselves in the field of architecture. Even more rewarding, however, is seeing alumni return to the Columbus area and give back to the community and the program itself.
“One of our alumni, Eric Newland, was inducted into the Eastland-Fairfield Hall of Fame. There are 40 or 50 people on that wall throughout history—for a relatively new program like ours to nominate him and see him selected is really fulfilling. Maria Melaragno Schaper spent time in Miami working as an urban designer; now she’s back in Gahanna, working for one of the large regional planning companies here. Another alumnus, Jason McGee, is now the ACM instructor and is elevating the program to greater heights.
“It’s fun to see these students learn, spread their wings, and then want to give back to the program that gave them so much value. It’s really cool to see them want to anchor themselves as a contributor to their communities in this profession.”
Today, Dan serves as the chair of ACM’s Advisory Committee, a Senior Project Mentor and a guest juror for design competitions. He also returns often to the classroom as a guest speaker. For him, sponsoring ACM is about more than investing in the future of architecture—the ACM program gives him a chance to equip young people in the Columbus area for the workplace and the world that awaits them.
“My nine years of involvement teaching was one of the most fulfilling roles of my life. Helping a student explore a career, and pointing them in a direction for success, is very rewarding.”