Architects in Schools program stimulates students to think outside the box.

PHOTO: SALLY PAINTER  - Toby Staggs, age 10, of Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, points to the model of a wickiup native dwelling he made as a culmination of the Architects in Schools program, which seeks to introduce architectural principles to elementary schoolers.

Not many professions send their people into elementary schools to work with kids. You don't see lawyers showing third graders how to write a brief, or medics how to code for procedures — but architects seem to have a special place in the imaginations of little ones.

Every year, Architects in Schools sends design professionals into Portland third to fifth grades to demystify their trades.

These include architects, engineers, contractors, landscape architects and urban planners. Teachers apply between August to October and are partnered with a design professional and plan a design for focused residency that they schedule in winter or spring for at least six weeks.

Teachers apply in October and are assigned a pro who comes in the spring for five to ten visits. The educators keep on doing what they are doing — teaching local history, math, social studies — but base the lessons around buildings.

For instance this year, Woodstock Elementary's third grade teacher Jamie Hillenberg has been teaching about homelessness. She worked with Holst — about as blue chip a firm as they come — and her kids designed pods for a notional homeless person (or family).

The fifth grade at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science studied northwest architectural periods from a wickiup to a Victorian and beyond, and then made models out of popsicle sticks.

PHOTO: SALLY PAINTER  - Families come to OMSI on May 19 for an exhibit of the models and drawings made by students as part of AIS.

OMSI space camp

While some schools had their work on display in architects' offices, a dozen are on show now at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Families, educators and design professionals gathered on Saturday, May 23 to view each other's work.

Jamie Hillenberg of Woodstock told the Business Tribune that her class had been studying cities and how they deal with problems, and then homelessness came up. They talked about how cities make policies to deal with the issue. They had already thought about homeless camps, read articles, talked to their families and seen them from a distance. Their architects Lee Jorgensen and Lenore Wan showed them plans and renderings of some tiny homes and living pods.

Her third graders learned that architects don't create in a vacuum. They work with a client whom they must satisfy, as well as following all the rules of building code. (The class skipped over budgeting.) The brief was to be sustainable (green) and community-minded.

Kleenex Minecraft

For their final models, they used mostly cube-shaped Kleenex boxes. Some went into detail about the furniture and how they would accommodate children, siblings and pets. Some focused on the exterior and the sustainable elements such as solar panels and water collection. There were tissue hole-shaped entrances and plastic cup rainwater collection systems. Some just went big with the red fur.

Millenberg says she "Gently reminded them what the client is, but of course we let them be creative."

They did not have much of a vocabulary of architecture in the beginning, but after the six-week residency they did.

"This was really high interest. Some of them who like to make stuff out of paper on their own (were into it)." She knows some of the kids are big builders on Minecraft, the block-based video game, although she hasn't seen their worlds, only heard about them because they talk about them a lot.

"We didn't do a budget because our focus was on sustainability and designing for a client who is not themselves, which is a big concept for a third grader."

Like many educators today, she emphasized collaboration.

"Every other thing we did for AIS involved partnerships," she said.

"We do a lot of teaching of how to collaborate because it's a skill, it's important in third grade."

PHOTO: SALLY PAINTER  - Toby Staggs of Cottonwood School of Civics and Science making a geodesic dome of toothpicks and mini marshmallows. Students quickly learn what Buckminster Fuller knew - the triangle is king.

Kim's young 'uns

Kim Ruthardt Knowles is the associate director of Architects in Schools. Walking around the space she told the Business Tribune, "The program is geared to integrate what they're learning in school and what life is like outside school and get them to think like designers in a creative way and think of themselves as part of a community."

In one case the focus on community meant students designed for the Broadway Corridor are in the Pearl District. Some classes just focus on basics concepts like load and compression, what it takes to build a bridge, what are the strongest structures?

The goal isn't to just turn kids into design professionals.

"We want them to feel this experience connects to their life outside of school, and see themselves as a community, and they have a voice in the design of the space they live and learn and play in," Knowles said.

But there is the chance it will emerge in later life as a passion.

"We hope so, we don't have any hard data on that. It's a challenge to track students, but we have heard back from students where they really remember that design professional coming to their classroom," Knowles said. "I have talked to architects who were sitting in a restaurant, a teenager comes up and says 'I remember when you came to my class, in elementary school.' There's definitely stories where they have made an impact on these children as they grow."

For some, it's an awakening to a professional world of power and self-determination.

"Some of them have not heard the words architecture and engineering. They're understanding there are lots of people who get together to create space, and the more people involved and have a say, the better-designed spaces we will end up with, and the better for everyone."

Dennis from Sitton

Dennis Poklikuha, a retired third grade teacher who was at Sitton Elementary for 20 years and Forest Park for a couple more, loves the program. He was manning the craft table. Kids of all ages could drop in and make a geodesic dome from toothpicks and mini marshmallows.

He asked a boy, Toby Staggs, age 10, of Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, if he knew the structural difference between a triangle and a square.

"He knew the triangle was stronger than the square, so I knew I could leave him alone."

Poklikuha watches them deal with architectural problems. "If their structure keeps falling over they have to somehow build supports. They quickly learn the triangle is the thing to use."

Independence has its place.

"I find that if they failed they didn't want help, they wanted to fix it on their own. That may be an indication the program works. A lot of them, if I was leaning over they said, 'Just leave me alone, I want to do it.'"

As the marshmallows dry out they become rigid.

"The dome makes a nice hat that fits a third grader's head. My kids would save them and wear them when the architects came to school."

Toby Staggs of Cottonwood School said he was into Lego and Minecraft, and had enjoyed building the native shelter, the wickiup. He said he wanted to be an inventor, and his favorite YouTube maker channel is Five Minute Crafts.


The 4/5 grade blend teacher at Cottonwood, Elizabeth Thompson, said she raided SCRAP for building materials, which were mostly popsicle sticks and craft paper.

Her professional was Jeff Slinger, mechanical engineer and senior project manager at Andersen Construction. He has been working for several years with SRG Architecture on the Knight Cancer Research Building, which is close enough for the Cottonwood kids to walk to for a field trip.

PHOTO: COURTESY ARCHITECTS IN SCHOOLS - Jeff Slinger (left) a mechanical engineer and senior project manager at Andersen Construction, an unidentified teacher, and Elizabeth Thompson (right) of Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, in front of their class work.

Play time

First, they used craft paper to make columns with different cross sections: circle, triangle, square and rectangle. Then they piled books on them. The cylindrical column won, holding up a whopping 25 books.

"I went in six or seven times," said Slinger. "I had to study up on architecture. We learned complicated problems with paper, marshmallows and toothpicks. I wish at Oregon State, when we were doing trusses, we had had marshmallows. A cube is all loosey-goosey, but the pyramid is so strong."

Teacher Thompson had the students leaning on each other like a cheer team. "Kids feel what it's like to be a building," she said. "They get an intuitive sense of the physics, rather than just the numbers."

Happy hour

At the KCRB, they not only got to see the collaborative nature of colocation — huge teams working together in one space — but also got to see the space that is designed for medical professionals in which to collaborate better. They also met a cancer research scientist for an hour.

Slinger said his goal was the opposite of turning kids into design professionals — but he did get a text from a parent who said all their kid would do now is talk about architecture, Google it and watch YouTube shows on it.

"It's like maybe I just made another architect, changing the trajectory of a young person's life? If we made one more cancer researcher and one more architect..." It was also hard work dealing with a classroom of kids, as opposed to a room of professionals.

"It gives me an amazing appreciation of what Elizabeth (Thompson) does every day. After an hour in class I feel like I need to find a happy hour!"

A side of creativity

Dennis Poklikuha came back to add, with some urgency, "You don't see any kids bringing their parents to school to show them their test scores. The kids are building and creating and sharing it with their parents. It's really important and I don't think we do that in the schools enough. It's not testing knowledge, it's testing creativity."

He said he was almost in tears as he watched a two-year-old make a marshmallow bouquet, show it to her grandma, then turn it into a necklace. At the end she flexed her arms with pride, like a champion.

"This should be encouraged for kids who are struggling in other subjects. This may be their shining moment that helps them enjoy school. All schools should be based upon success."

He is taking free ceramics classes at PSU and has studied art history, music theory, drawing and beginning guitar.

"I'm finally doing what I've been telling these kids to do, at 67. I'm finally getting creative and I'm just loving it."


The five overarching goals of the Architects in Schools Program

Students learn:

1. That design is all around us and we make decisions every day that affect our environment.

2. How the subjects they study in school apply to the real world outside of school.

3. That design of the built environment affects and is affected by human behavior.

4. That there are many people who create the spaces in which we live, learn, work and play and some examples of their jobs (i.e. architects, landscape architects, structural and civil engineers, contractors, urban planners, etc.).

5. Skills that help them to work better in groups, to communicate their ideas, and that designing and building spaces is a process as well as a product.

Each residency is custom designed for that class and often residencies are integrated into existing classroom curricula. AIS helps teachers and design professionals pick a residency theme or classroom curriculum unit to align the residency with and then the teacher/design professional team chooses lessons from the Architects in Schools curriculum guide to support the theme. Residencies can integrate with almost any classroom subject and we have material to help teachers and design professionals know how to address required education standards during the residency. The lessons are very adaptable depending on what the teacher/design professional team decides is best for their class. Design professionals present the lessons during their scheduled classroom sessions while teachers are still responsible for classroom management.

(Kim Ruthardt Knowles, AIS)

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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