By Travis Smith, Assoc. AIA, Design Professional
Editor’s note: This year Ambient Principal Architect Rachel Stemach and Design Professional Travis Smith had the privilege of participating in Oregon’s Architects in Schools program. Here, Travis shares his experience teaching the importance of communication in architecture to LaPine Elementary kiddos.
Each spring for more than 30 years the Architecture Foundation of Oregon has connected design professionals and architects with teachers in elementary schools across the state as part of its Architects in Schools program. I felt fortunate this year as a representative of Ambient Architecture, LLC and worked with Mr. Chris Bagley’s 3rd grade class at LaPine Elementary (Rachel worked with Ms. Dawn Williams’ 5th grade class at Miller Elementary).
Architects in Schools is meant to open the eyes and minds of young students in Oregon, and this spring more than 60 designers were paired with classrooms introducing 2,200-plus youngsters (grades 3–5) to the design profession. The program begins with an orientation class, where designers and teachers gather to learn the history of the Architects in Schools program, as well as a great deal of information that will help the classroom experience of both the students and designer/architect.
Held in the early part of February, the orientation session is a time for designers/architects and teachers to sit down and organize a plan for the spring in which the designer/architect will make at least six visits to the classroom. During these visits, the architect/teacher pair applies basic architecture concepts to the already established curriculum and teaches students architecture fundamentals as they might apply to everyday life.
The first classroom visit brings along many emotions with it: Intrigue for the teacher, extreme joy for the students (do you remember having that much energy?!) and nerves for the design professional (at least that was my experience!). I found the students inquisitive about the architectural profession, asking questions about the designers and their work that are surprisingly deep and captivating.
Each classroom visit also has a “project” for the students to get hands-on experience in the day-to-day activities of an architect. Established previously by the teacher/designer pair, these projects have been designed in a way to teach the students concepts pertaining to the everyday lessons they’re already learning in the classroom.
For example, in 3rd grade, a large part of the learning experience is communication. This is also an important skill for architects, who work daily with clients, engineers and contractors. With that in mind, we found it easy to incorporate this concept into our lessons.
In one project, we split students into groups of three. Each student in the group was given the designation as either a “client,” “contractor,” or “architect.” Using communication skills they had learned in preparation for the designer’s classroom session, the students then communicated their ideas down the line from “client” to “contractor” using the “architect” as the main communicator.
We asked the students to create a paper bag mask, but the “client” could only use words to tell the “architect” what he/she wants. The “architect” then used written words and drawings to show the contractor what the “client” wanted. And finally the “contractor” made the mask and handed it back to the “client.”
After the masks were handed back (and the general grumbling from the students is over—this is a hard assignment!), we then used the results as a way to show students how important communication is in the architecture profession.
Our projects were also designed to build upon each other, culminating in a final project that the students will create and display. This year in Bend the participating classrooms, teachers, and architects will be displaying their final projects as part of the First Friday Art Walk on May 3rd in The Old Mill.