Back in the Classroom with Architects in Schools

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School may be out for the summer, but we’re still reminiscing about our great time in the classroom while participating in Architects in Schools (AiS). The annual six-week program pairs architects with classroom teachers to give kids a deeper understanding of the designed and built environment. This year, our team members Marlene Gillis and Emily Matis worked with Megan Gallusser’s 4th grade class at Creative Science School, while Carlie Douglas worked with 2nd and 3rd graders at Skyline School.

We sat down with Emily Matis to learn more.

What’s your favorite part about participating in this program?

I loved seeing how the kids would all solve problems differently. The creativity that came from all of their different approaches to the projects was impressive and inspiring

I also appreciated how the program encourages creative problem solving. The school we partnered with teaches kids to use the scientific method throughout all their lessons; the kids are encouraged to investigate, discover, and keep asking questions. The assignments from Architects in Schools fit well with their mode of instruction.

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In what ways did the program challenge you?

It was a challenge to introduce the forces behind the creation of a building, and quickly boil down all the concepts of building form within the time constraints. We didn’t want to limit the students’ ideas by complicating the instructions. We really wanted them to use their time to practice considering someone else’s needs and then to use their own ideas and creativity to make it come to life.

I think the biggest challenge we assisted them with was learning that creating a building for a client means taking in information and translating it through your own creative lens. In this case, they worked with a partner in class who became their client. We asked them to focus on addressing the client’s needs (in interior space) and addressing the environment’s needs (in exterior space).

By the end, the kids were able to tell us how they interpreted their client’s lifestyle and how they translated the ideas into built space. That was the big win, seeing their models, reading their paragraphs on their creative process and hearing them tell me how they worked through the time constraints and programmatic challenges.

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How has participating affected your own approach to architecture?

Working with children makes you a better communicator. A large part of my job in architecture is to communicate visually, and to simplify my message. When I can become a better communicator,  my own contributions to our projects become better.

The lessons were also a good reminder that ultimately, your job is to meet the needs of your clients. I was reminded of the importance of getting at the heart of what a client is truly asking for, and how we can understand our clients better by asking deeper questions.

Can you tell us more about one of the lessons you taught?

We had to limit the scope a little for the purpose of clarity, but the assignment was “A Special Structure for a Special Client.” The kids were asked to create a model that combined form and function. They had to interview each other and build a model for their partner. To introduce the activity, we took the class on a walk around their own neighborhood to get them to ask questions about the decisions that went into designing their own houses that they live in.

After providing a few weeks of lessons about the structure of houses, specifically, I added a spin to the lesson by showing up to class dressed as a superhero, telling the kids I had a secret identity they didn’t know about. I became the kids’ first client, and they got the chance to ask me questions about what my lifestyle as a superhero was like, and what I do during the day so they could design a house for me. We gave them time to make a quick study model to try out form and function ideas. The following week, the kids got to reveal their own superhero or super villain identities, and pair up to work on a longer model building project.

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It was critically important to me to bring in the element of involving their own imagination beyond anything they had looked at throughout the rest of the lessons. I wanted the kids to go beyond meeting the demands of design they were used to looking at in the normal world, and problem solve for something much more fun and expansive. By asking them to take on their own character, and make up their own traits outside their personality, they were forced to ask critical questions about each other’s characters, and not assume anything about their needs. The kids come into this already familiar with each other; taking the lesson to the imaginative realm challenged them to be better listeners, and to communicate, along with being creative. They got to compare their experience of how they interpreted someone else’s needs with how a classmate interpreted theirs.

During the design process we threw a curve-ball at them: we added on an unexpected environmental condition for them to respond to, which was written on an index card they chose at random – sun, rain, snow, or wind. Some of the kids lucked out and were already prepared, but some others had to drastically change their approach to choosing building materials or design. Helping them through the process of changing directions artistically was a lot of fun, because their questions went from extreme frustration to “Eureka!”  In the end, those were the kids that told me they felt the most accomplished with their projects. I think that lesson is crucial to developing critical thinking skills and finding the confidence to face challenges as they change and develop.

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Why is it important to participate?

I think it helps make design less intimidating and it encourages kids to believe that they can design whatever they want. The program empowers everyone to have a voice.

Above all, it teaches children how to convert ideas into physical space. I love that these kids can now walk through their neighborhoods, look at the houses, and understand that there are choices behind how everything looks.

By the end they had learned the word “client,” which I think surprised some of the parents. Despite this being based on superheroes and villains in imaginary places, the kids were still responsible for making the models stand up using structural lessons, and to suggest ways for the building to respond to the environment. We based these lessons on showing them real buildings responding to the elements. They’ve developed a real knowledge base, but had more fun doing it.

Architects in Schools always needs more volunteers and I hope that more people become involved. The kids get a lot out of it. It’s a great chance to have fun and give back and the same time.

Thank you Emily! Our team can’t wait to participate again next year. To learn more about how to become involved, check out the Architects in Schools resources page.