Students create creative building projects in the Design LAB | Wender Mind Kids

Students study engineering drawings during Design LAB, a program that teaches children to design, finance, construct, and execute building projects.

Imagine a school that only teaches kids about dinosaurs. Or an interstellar academy for aliens to learn about Earth. Or a gym where teenagers can train alongside Bengals players and study the discipline needed to reach the NFL.

That’s the kind of playful thinking behind the “learning spaces” that Cincinnati students featured in this year’s Design LAB: Learn and Build, an elementary school program led by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati. For a whole semester, the children learned how to plan, finance, construct and operate building projects.

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Design LAB started in the late 1980s as a program called Architect by Children. It’s free for schools in the Cincinnati area, but requires a lot of coordination on the part of teachers.

Christen Lubbers, executive director of the foundation, said the number of participating schools has increased since its inception but has slowed during the pandemic. This past spring semester, Design Lab was taught in 56 classrooms at 23 schools in the Cincinnati metro area to approximately 1,174 children, up from 2,000 children before the pandemic.

"It [sixth grade] is a good age for kids to create these projects because they still come up with these crazy, wacky ideas, but their motor skills are better developed so they can do more with the models," said Design LAB volunteer Chase Eggers.

Each year, students and volunteers create projects around a central theme, usually related to what’s happening in the world or in Cincinnati. A few years ago, students focused on building bridges: one child designed a bridge to heaven to visit his grandparents, another an electromagnetic tunnel for intercontinental travel.

When the 2020 pandemic hit, Design LAB switched to virtual learning and on “apartments”.