Design Time: A Morning with Teens in Trouble

By: Jennifer Penner, AIA, CDT, NCARB

25 June 2017

When I was asked by a teacher to speak to a group of at-risk teenagers about architecture, I jumped at the chance. I have a deep desire to spread the knowledge of architecture as far and wide as I can. I always accept invitations to present at career fairs and inside classrooms. This time was going to be a little different. For one thing, these teenagers of various ages were all enrolled in the Juvenile Community Corrections Program.

Karrie Espinosa, of Las Cruces, New Mexico works with these teens at the Juvenile Community Corrections program. A former middle-school teacher, she is now a case specialist with the JCC. The JCC is the New Mexico Children Youth & Families Department’s alternative to incarceration for children on probation or supervised release. These children are dealing with a lot in their lives and this program helps by teaching them life skills. In addition to this aspect, my presentation would need to hold their attention for a few hours. This was going to be a challenge even if every one of them was solidly interested in architecture, and I didn’t know if any of them were in the slightest.

Rather than talk to them about what an architect does and the steps to eventually become one, which I usually do, I decided that I would give them a broad overview of architecture as a way of life and do some exercises that I recently tried when co-teaching a class of 5th graders at Mark Twain Elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Anne Taylor and her team from School Zone teamed up with the elementary school to teach the CORE curriculum through the lens of architecture to promote design and aesthetic education for teachers, children, and the adult community. Dr. Taylor gathered up some architects to teach and that’s how I got involved. Together with two other practicing architects, Tina Reames and Emily Brudenell, we have been teaching Mrs. Dickinson’s 5th graders about architecture, every other Friday, for several months.

The specific exercises were learned one jam packed Saturday in November 2016, and are the same exercises we’ve taught Mrs. Dickinson’s 5th graders, but modified for older children. Because I went through it myself and then taught it, I figured I could use Dr. Taylor’s curriculum to show anyone how to tap into their ability for design thinking. This would be the perfect way to present and understand architecture! I was told to prepare for twenty teenagers on the day of my presentation. I was confident because I knew that Dr. Taylor’s lessons were interesting and appropriate for all ages.

Eleven teens showed up on the day of the presentation, seven boys and four girls. Councilors distributed snacks, introduced me, and quickly the floor was mine. I began with a brief slideshow on architecture from early hut designs to the race to space with the magnificent skyscraper, the Burj Kalifah, in Dubai. Then I showed a slide full of women architects and Zaha Hadid’s iconic work, emphasizing that architecture is not just a career for men. I ended with a few slides about how I became inspired at a very young age building forts and playing with Legos. I ended the lecture portion of the morning and got right into the timed learning objectives: drawing and hands-on learning, which is so important in design.

Time: 5 minutes. Our first exercise was to draw arrows. I asked them where we typically see arrows and what do they mean. A few students called out answers and all agreed that arrows indicate direction or movement. I showed them a slide with arrows from Dr. Taylor’s work and asked them to draw two of their favorites from the slide plus two more of their own design. The objective was to learn the symbolism of arrows, draw examples, and then create their own for use in diagrammatic work. I was encouraged to see the students get to work and complete the task smoothly.

Time: 10 minutes. When their time was up, I got started with the Birth, Life, and Death of a Bubble design experience from Dr. Taylor’s curriculum. In this exercise, the teens were asked to visually follow the beginning stages of a bubble through life until it pops and then represent this on paper by way of a schematic drawing. The goal was to develop a drawing that would depict a visual story and help them tap into their ability to observe, think, and express their ideas visually.  I asked them to draw what they saw when Ms. Espinosa blew the bubbles, paying attention to the life of the bubble. “How do you convey to your best-friend who isn’t here today, through a drawing, what happened to these bubbles?” The teens worked diligently on their drawings, and I was happy to see every one of them engaged. I didn’t have them hold up their work. Not yet, we were still warming up to each other.

Time: 30 Minutes.  Our next exercise was to mimic patterns in nature. This helps students to recognize the organizing principles of design in the world around them. I showed them dozens of images of nature’s handiwork on the screen to help them see how natural design is. We handed out stacks of squares to each of the students to begin making designs on their sheets. The goal here was to be able to recreate the patterns found in nature using only small squares. Almost all of them started out by making checker boards. I walked around and asked each of the students what pattern they were making. Most of them didn’t know. I was a little worried that there wasn’t enough time to go back through the designs in nature again. As I continued talking with them I’d glance over at the teen next to them, I could see that almost all of them had already begun changing their design. It seemed like the grid pattern was the safe bet and once they played with it, they were able to explore other patterns, and I was excited to see them catching on. I introduced a three dimensional portion of the lesson and gave them ten minutes to finish and get everything glued down.

When this exercise was complete I held each teen’s work up for them to review and asked the others what pattern the teen had made. They were more comfortable at that point and began speaking up openly and with sureness. All of the teens were respectful of each other and though they weren’t confident in their own work, were able to comment on the work of their peers. This was very gratifying as they were now showing their ability to understand and appreciate design.

Time: 15 minutes. Our last exercise was to identify positive form and negative space. The goal is to introduce the student to composition paying attention to balance, contrast, and proportion. I gave out shapes to each of them and showed examples of positive form and negative space from Dr. Taylor’s slideshow on the topic. This task allowed the teens the creativity to eliminate pieces of the large shape I gave them in order to make larger designs. They were able to create designs with positive forms while allowing the negative space to take on a role in their design through afore mentioned balance, contrast, and proportion. I was pleasantly surprised to see all of them cutting away at their shapes and making some interesting designs. The instructors even asked for paper and scissors to work on their own positive form and negative space designs.

Time: 10 minutes. At the end of the lesson I reviewed with them how all of these exercises are design and thus architecture. Reflection helps the student to make sense of their learning and helps to solidify it. I explained how they are now design thinkers. In closing, I asked first, what was something they didn’t like about the day’s activities? A student in the back shot his hand up. “Yes, sir, what didn’t you like about today?” I asked. “I didn’t like how you never gave us enough time!” he said. “That’s right!” I exclaimed. “We architects never have enough time to design and play. We are constantly up against deadlines and we need to manage our time to get the job done. You’ve just taken a peek into the fun and fast-paced world of architecture.”

Finally, I asked, “What was your favorite part of the day?” A girl quietly answered, “Meeting you.” This was the perfect end to a wonderful morning with some very bright and engaging young people. With that I collected my things and waved goodbye, feeling accomplished and honored to have been given the opportunity to spend a morning with these teens. Dr. Taylor’s work to spread the message of design thinking is making a difference in so many ways. Whether it is in self-confidence, being able to identify design, or just being able to appreciate the act of creating; design thinking is a gift. It is clear that no matter what kind of pupil, you can teach core subjects through architectural lesson plans, but you can also awaken a part of the mind in a child that could otherwise go unreached.

For more information on the Architecture and Children Around the World program.