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.
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”.
“It was a path for her [kids] to reinvent the spaces that surrounded them at the time,” said Lubbers.
In the past semester, schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade personally took part in the Design LAB on the subject of “learning spaces”. dozens of Volunteers from local architecture firms, construction companies and universities brought personal expertise to their classrooms.
“Our volunteers are trained to get students to think beyond what they think of first,” Lubbers said. “The Design LAB process gives students the mindset of how to push their own limits.”
Chase Eggers, project manager in the Cincinnati office of Skanska USA, a construction and development company, has worked with Design Lab for over four years. From January through May last, he worked with Leslie Burklow, a teacher at EH Greene Intermediate School in Blue Ash, to teach the curriculum for their four math classes.
“We asked children early on which experts they thought would contribute to a construction project, because we want them to understand that it’s not just architects and engineers or site managers who build,” said Eggers. “Children need to understand that there are also career opportunities in technical professions.”
Creating architectural models that represent their big design idea isn’t the only hands-on way kids learn in the Design LAB. You will also learn to work with clients and interpret their needs, scout locations, calculate project estimates and ratings, draw to scale, and select materials. This year, students studied sustainable building design and went on field trips to Music Hall and the Civic Garden Center.
As the pandemic forced the program to go entirely virtual, Eggers zoomed in on projects in Cincinnati with on-site students. “They saw a lot more action behind the scenes than they would normally do in the classroom,” he said.
Throughout the semester, children participated in design critiques in front of other students and volunteers, which is a common practice in the real world and in architecture schools. Her work was shown in a public exhibition at the end of the year and appraised by a jury.
Both Eggers and Burklow have worked with Design LAB for so long that some of their former students are now working in the industry or are actively planning to build their own homes. Some even come back to work as volunteers. “I would like to hope that our program has pushed them in that direction,” Eggers said.
“I have students who come back to me years later and ask for pictures of their work that they did with us,” added Burklow. “They really remember these projects!”
Bob Wise, 20, took over design LAB at Burklow in 2014. He was a sixth grader at EH Greene at the time and is now a third-year chemical engineering student at Ohio State University.
“I think the most important thing was learning how to move through the different design processes and tackle every problem that came my way,” he said. “I have Ms. Burklow to thank for that. She is still one of my favorite teachers.”
For the coming school year, the Design LAB will encourage students to explore the theme of ‘gathering spaces’. Volunteer registrations begin in the fall. To learn more about the program, visit architecturecincy.org.
Sydney Franklin reports on the real estate business in Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter @sydreyfrank_ and send story tips to email@example.com.