Architects In Schools

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I recently I spent the day at orientation for the 2013-2014 Portland Architects in Schools program. Architects in Schools is residency for elementary schools to bring an Architect into a 3rd-5th grade classroom to teach the children about the design environment over the course of 6-8 weeks.

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The program was started about 40 years as part of the first Earth Day. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) had setup many Architects in Schools programs around the country, unfortunately many did not last long.  Oregon on the other hand has been going strong since the beginning. The Architecture Foundation of Oregon (a group that I just recently became a member of) currently maintains the program in Portland, Bend, Eugene and other areas around the state.

From my understanding it seems that the Portland Public School system has very little Art or Humanities in their curriculum.  Architects in Schools goal is to help inform how the students look and negotiate the built environment while creating awareness around design.

The program pairs a teacher and an Architect together and does a wonderful job of setting them up for success.  At orientation each Architect is handed 3 ring binder that is packed with excellent projects focused around Design and Architecture all mapped out. Then the rest of the day is spent doing the projects and learning from a school kid’s point of view about architecture and how to deliver these projects to the students.

At the end of the residency, Architects in Schools puts on a huge art exhibition at several locations around downtown Portland for the monthly First Thursday Art Gallery Walk night. This years will be May 1st 2013.

I participated last year and had the best time ever. Each time I showed up feeling a little nervous and walked out feeling like a hero and immediately started looking forward to the next visit. They must have asked me a thousand questions about Architecture, my job and my life. Right away I felt how important it was to the kids that I was there each week.

I was placed in Mrs. Belchers 3rd grade Class at Woodstock Elementary in SE Portland.  The kids I worked with were part of the Chinese Immersion program, which means they spent ½ their day studying Chinese. They amazed me every time with how mature, smart and creative they all were.  It was a real treat working with these brilliant students.

Here are some of the projects we worked on during my residency last year.

My first visit was short. I just popped in to introduce myself and briefly talk about the program and architecture. We ended up going outside to take a look at the front of their historic school that was built in 1911. We talked all about all the different elements of the building like the columns, the roof lines, windows, circulation the handicap ramp, where the cars and pedestrians are allowed.

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On the second visit each student laid a piece of tracing paper over a photo of the front of school (from where we were standing) and traced the different elements of the building. Then they each sketched several of their own designs of what the school would look like with a tower or a dome on it or even is the school was 2 stories. This was the beginning of several drawing exercises.

I found it really interesting that some students had a hard time grasping the idea of drawing as a process and that sometimes drawings were sloppy and messy and the idea was much more important than a perfect neat drawing.

 Client Architect Contractor

The Architects in Schools curriculum has a wonderful project focused around the relationship of the Client, Architect and Contractor. The students are told they are going to going to a party and they will need their own mask. Using words only the students wrote out the kind of mask that they wanted to wear to the party. All the papers were collected and redistributed. The next assignment was for the students to only draw (no words allowed) what the mask looks like from the information written. The papers were collected and redistributed to new students. The final part was each student built paperbag mask from the information that was given to them. Some of the masks came out beautifully and others got lost in translation which was also fun to see.

I played “show and tell” a few times. One day I showed up with an enormous roll of construction drawings from the Portland City Hall Renovation in 1998 by SERA Architects. It’s a wonderful set of drawings that has everything hand drawn and beautifully detailed of the building in a very elegant way. I taught them about plans, sections and elevations. We looked at the different disciplines that contribute drawings to a set of construction documents. Architectural, Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, Interiors, Civil, Landscape, Fire sprinklers and how all this different information is synthesized to create a single building.

On another visit I grabbed all my drafting and model building supplies and showed them all my tools. T-squares, different rulers and scales, a million pens and pencils, 10 different types of tape, 7 different glues, electric eraser, templates, triangles, various knives, scissors and tweezers.

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For several weeks we had been discussing how structures work and since the 3rd grade curriculum focuses on the history of Portland, for our final project the students worked in groups of 2 to build popsicle stick bridges. The got to play Client, Architect and Contractor and build their own models of bridges over the Willamette River, that I made out of cardboard. They spent several weeks working on them and they all came out fantastic. All the bridges were on display at the first Thursday exhibit inside Pioneer Square Mall in May 2013.

I don’t think I could have ever imagined I would have as much fun as I did last year during my residency at Woodstock Elementary. For several years  I had been wanting to participate this program but never signed up because “I had too many things going on right now”.  After several years of saying this one day I just decided to sign up.

Looking back I was truly the busiest during the year I actually signed up. At the end of the day, it wasn’t as big of a commitment as I had originally thought it was. I did my residency during my most intensive time studying for the Architect Registration Exam.

Architects in Schools became a wonderful escape from massive information intake from my studies and my busy job that always has 30 things going on at once. It allowed me to think creatively at a time and in a way when I needed that most.  I wish I could convince more people to participate in this wonderful program.

This year it looks like I will be working with 4th grade students and I am currently in the process of working out all the logistics of the program this year with the teacher. I look forward to sharing all the exciting news as I move forward with the students.

Anyone that is interested in getting involved contact the Architecture Foundation of Oregon. 

Click HERE to see an article In the Oregon AIA about last year’s Architects in Schools program.

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About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.