Michael, a student in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, is very familiar with the concrete stairs at the entrance to the Hilton Building. He stepped on its worn treads when entering his classroom building in the morning, and again when he departed every afternoon to go home.
So when the stairs disappeared in August, as part of a larger construction project to make the building more accessible, he had questions.
“Dear Bob, what happened to our front steps?” he wrote in an email.
The man he was addressing is Bob DiDonato, a superintendent at Shawmut Design and Construction, the firm hired by Perkins School for the Blind to modernize the Hilton and Howe buildings. When he’s not reviewing plans or working onsite, DiDonato responds to questions from students about what’s happening behind the safety barriers.
On campus he’s known as simply “Ask Bob.”
“I love to talk and I love to talk about construction, so I welcome the questions,” said DiDonato, still wearing his hard hat and reflective safety vest. “I try not to be too technical and to give them an overview of what to expect.”
Students send their queries to a special Ask Bob email address, and wait for responses to be posted on the Perkins intranet site. Some kids, like Michael, want to know what kinds of improvements are being made to the building. Will the new bathrooms contain one stall or two? Others are curious about a specific noise they heard, or what kinds of trucks are being used to transport materials.
One Secondary Program student asked about climate control in the Howe Building’s famously warm classrooms. “Are we going to have air conditioning on the east side?” he wrote.
DiDonato assured him that he would, on the first floor for now.
Ask Bob is a way for students to learn about renovations taking place on campus, even if they can’t see the results, said Perkins Senior Project Operations Analyst Janice Provencher.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to be exposed to something new,” she said. “It’s really been a teaching tool and a way to engage them.”
Perkins has a history of turning construction projects into teachable moments. In 2010, Shawmut’s Mike Mallett, aka “Ask Mike,” fielded questions when the new Lower School was being built. He also helped create a tactile construction board where students could touch the various building materials being used in the project – from prickly metal sprinkler heads to smooth slate roof tiles.
A few years later, Shawmut’s Lauren Slaven was appointed “Ask Lauren” for a bridge project at the Perkins Pond, and Ray Delmonico of Nelm Corp. became “Ask Ray” during construction of the Bradlee Park accessible playground.
When Perkins announced extensive renovations to the Hilton and Howe buildings this summer, building staff knew they had to continue the tradition.
“With this project it was a no-brainer,” Provencher said. “The kids here are interested in what’s going on – they’re curious.”
Writing an email to Ask Bob is also a learning opportunity for students. They practice vital communications skills while using assistive technology to send their emails and read the responses. For some of the younger students, “Ask Bob” has achieved celebrity status.
“It’s not their teacher or their parents,” said Provencher. “I think that’s a little bit of a thrill for them, that they’re dealing with someone outside of their day-to-day world.”