Ongoing concern about COVID-19 and uncertainty about how schools handle in-person activities have led to a shortage of design professionals volunteering for the Architects in School's (AiS) program as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
"Last year, with the COVID restrictions, all classrooms were distance learning at the beginning. Now we have schools in various stages of distance learning, in-person classes, and a combination of the two," said Kim Ruthardt Knowles, AiS associate director. "We're prepared to support people however they would like to serve in the schools."
Administered by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon, AiS works in schools across the state to introduce students to design principles to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and community engagement. AiS promotes environmental understanding, awareness of cultural links to history and communication skills while educating kids about career possibilities in science, technology, architecture, engineering and math (STEAM) — as well as construction.
AiS recruits architects, contractors, engineers and other professionals from the building industry and matches them with teachers in their geographic area for a six-week residency. With the teachers they choose lessons from a curriculum guide and create activities for third through fifth graders that include simple drawing techniques, lessons for measuring and designing floor plans, and a pictorial survey of architectural periods and styles that coincide with studies of Northwest Native Americans, pioneers, Victorians and other periods in the 20th century.
And, yes, there is often bridge-building involved. Students are encouraged to consider questions such as "What makes structures stand up?" "What will cities look like 25 years from now?" and "What is a Green Building?" according to AFO.
"Having adults who care enough to share that passion really means a lot to children, and it connects to what they are learning in school," Knowles said. "I think the more children are exposed to those concepts, the more the world opens up to them."
AiS has grown from serving 800 students a year to more than 5,400 in the Portland metro area, Salem, Eugene, Central Oregon and other communities in Southern, Eastern and Coastal Oregon.
With the current shortage of volunteers, AFO has 21 schools — most of them in the Portland metro area — that have requested AiS and are left unserved. That totals more than 1,000 students without access to architecture and design-based education that can help them understand the importance and influence of the built environment and inspire the next generation of design, engineering, and building professionals. In addition, the construction industry and other building trades already face a severe shortage of workers.
The AiS volunteer shortage impacts low-income students, ESL students and non-traditional learners, in particular, as AFO has found they are among those who benefit most profoundly from the program. AiS often is the first introduction to students of color that they, too, can pursue the training and education to become a STEAM professional.
"It's really exciting for them to think about themselves in that role because they are exposed to someone who is in the profession," Knowles said. "These are new ideas for a lot of these children, so to get them thinking about it at a young age helps them know that doors can be open to them as they grow and they can think about the possibility of going to college in order to follow that path. The earlier they start thinking about that the better it is for them to find those tools and have those opportunities."
Ed Herrera, AIA, NCARB, senior associate at BRIC Architecture Inc., works in K-12 school design and said his experience as an AiS volunteer allows him to work with teachers and see firsthand how they, students and other end users utilize the learning environment.
"Within that space, I can also contribute by representing the fact that there's more than one model of what an architect is and looks like. This is particularly important as the AiS program extends to marginalized communities where the kids may have difficulty accessing information about the profession," he said. "Representation does matter and especially within these communities. AiS does a good job of making an effort to provide parity across the spectrum."
Sina Meier, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, associate architect at Opsis Architecture, Interiors & Planning, has volunteered for AiS for more than five years and considers herself fortunate to work with the same teacher every year. She is looking forward to a return to the classroom.
"I find it so rewarding to connect with students and hear their thoughts on architecture. It's energizing and humbling to get to see my profession through their eyes," she said. "I don't think of myself as an expert going into the classroom. It's really a mutual journey of discovery as we all learn from and with each other."
Meier said the group usually works on projects in the hallway outside of the classroom and she can feel the buzz of excitement among the students. "Students in my class greet me before our lesson, younger children get excited about the chance to participate in AiS in the future, and students whom I worked with in the past stop by to say hello. For me, it has become a tradition, and I wouldn't want to miss a year."
AFO's Knowles said the period to sign up to volunteer was a little later this year to give teachers more time to organize how they would create space for AiS activities within social distancing guidelines. The initial deadline to sign up was Oct. 22, but those who would like to volunteer can still join the program.
During the application process, volunteers can specify whether they would like to work in a classroom or do a virtual residency instead. "We want this to be a positive experience for everyone, and we want people to feel comfortable and have a good experience," she said.
Architecture Foundation of Oregon
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