Engaging Students in the Design Process can have Lifelong Impacts
It all began when I was about eight years old. My dad, a high school art instructor, was remodeling our summer cabin and I was having fun watching the progress as I chased frogs and launched myself off the diving board into the murky lake. However, my interest in the remodel project changed dramatically when my father involved me in the design process. He asked me to design the pattern for the new kitchen floor.
Together, we went to the brick supplier and my small hands sorted through bricks of all sizes and colors as we discussed the opportunities of each. We found the perfect one, calculated how many we needed and I lugged several hundred of them over to the truck. On the drive back, my mind began churning out ideas for arranging the bricks on the floor. Oblivious at the time, it was on that kitchen floor - with my dirty small hands sliding those bricks into all kinds of patterns - that my mind began to make the connection of how art is infused in architecture.
Many projects and many years later, I am an architect specializing in the design of K-12 education facilities. I firmly believe that involving students in the building design process ignites learning that can shape their future. When school districts have the opportunity to build or renovate, there are several possibilities to engage students and let them directly impact or experience the design of one of the most important buildings in their community.
The Performing Arts Addition at Westside High School in Omaha, Neb., is a perfect case study. Faced with the constraints of a very tight site and functional relationships, the design team had to resolve the issue of having a mechanical room adjacent to the main entrance. DLR Group presented this challenge to the owner and stakeholders as an opportunity for student involvement. We proposed the idea that students could design and sculpt a brick mural on the wall that covers the mechanical equipment to integrate visual arts in the performing arts addition.
The process started with conversations between DLR Group’s design team and interested current and former students. We discussed in detail the performing arts addition and together we created a vision for the brick mural. The art department held a design competition and shortlisted the designs to two. The final design was chosen by District administration.
Next the art department employed an essay and interview process to select a team of brick carvers. These students and instructors spent their open periods and time after school stacking, carving, and disassembling the wet bricks over a course of several weeks. This exercise was the foundation for a semester full of lessons about brick making and brick sculpting for all art students, not just the team of brick carvers.
The brick mural won a Brick in Architecture Silver Award from the Brick Industry Association and gained media attention for the District. Sure, including students in the process takes trust and dedication between the District, teachers, students and designers, but the value can last a lifetime and may inspire a future architect or engineer.