Work Experience at DMA’s New Virtual Design Academy

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

At this time of year at DMA, there is usually a steady stream of young people coming into our studio to take part in our work experience programme. In normal circumstances, we offer around 20 week-long, structured work placements to young people who are interested in finding out about careers in the built environment, but who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to do so. We partner with organisations, schools and local authorities to try to create opportunities for as wide a range of kids as possible. We’re passionate about doing this because we believe it is vital to open up our industry, to make it more inclusive so that it reflects the communities in which we work.

As we went into lockdown, two of our team, architectural assistant Leila Naboulsi and architect Sundas Rohilla, were working closely with Landsec and Construction Youth Trust, on ‘Future Property School’, an ideas competition for school children from state schools in Westminster to design a mixed use scheme on a real site in the City of London. The final stages of the scheme had to be moved online (as with so much else) but it seemed to go really well. As Sundas commented –

“It was great fun. The students seemed genuinely enthused and they produced some fantastic, imaginative schemes.”

This sparked our imagination and we began to think about how we could move our work experience activities online and so continue to support and encourage young people, even when we’re all stuck at home.

So we have been developing the DMA Virtual Design Academy to offer careers support and work experience in an online, virtual environment. Our work experience programme already utilises digital technology in order to engage and inspire young people and it has won a number of awards recognising this, including a Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award, a Westminster Lions Award in 2018 and a BIM for Good Award in 2020. We usually give the students a crash course in BIM and they design a building, which, by the end of the week, they are able to explore for themselves in Virtual Reality. They come away from the programme with a takeaway design report that is useful for them to present in interviews to show what they can do.

A few of our team have been making the most of some downtime over the last few months, adapting our programme, setting up a virtual, interactive workbook for the students and taking the whole experience online. What is really exciting is that we will be able to take between 5 and 10 students at a time instead of one or two. It will give us the capacity to offer the experience to many more young people, including some who might have found it difficult to travel into central London or Liverpool, and this could be something that has real value even when we’re back in the studio.

Through our involvement with Heart of the City, we are constantly trying to develop the business in a responsible way, using our experience and contacts as a force for good. All of this seems doubly important now, with a huge amount of uncertainty for young people coming out of school and limited opportunities to get into workplaces to see how things work.

We have started piloting activities and one of the first was with Westminster Academy, following a call from Westminster Council’s Business and Enterprise team asking us to provide some online careers advice to local schools. Leila and Sundas devised a presentation about becoming an architect and delivered it to a group of students over two online seminars. They were really enthusiastic and engaged, and further activities are being planned, including a possible site visit to a local project. And last week, they took part in an interactive careers presentation at the City Lions Digital Festival (with a live Zoom poll for questions) as well as hosting a “Live Learning” session with the Sir Simon Milton Westminster UTC where DMA are part of their Employer Alliance.

So far, we have had very positive and enthusiastic feedback and we are planning to launch the full DMA Virtual Design Academy later this month. If you know of a school near you who would like some virtual careers advice, feel free to contact us at f.clark@david-miller.co.uk.