Architecture Lessons from 4th Graders

By Haley Teske, Design Staff

How to Teach Architecture: Hennebery Eddy and AFO’s Architects in Schools

In Fall 2020, COVID-19 cases were peaking in Oregon, and while the architecture profession had long ago adjusted to remote work, my primary sense of community in my new city came from my coworkers. Seeking connection with another aspect of Oregon, I volunteered to teach architecture to elementary school students through the Architecture Foundation of Oregon’s Architects in Schools program.

Little did I know that I would participate in a 70-student residency with the Oregon City School District. While initially overwhelmed by the prospect, I was quickly brought up to speed on how to keep so many kids engaged in a Zoom lesson by the two incredible teachers who ran this virtual classroom. Michele Blessing & Alia Fernandez helped incorporate architecture fundamentals into their existing curriculum, which was transitioning from indigenous studies to the pioneer period at that time.

Over the course of five months, the teachers and I conducted six lessons. We started with the basics of post and lintel, which then progressed into studying pioneer architecture, site analysis, sustainable design, and the future of our cities. The last lesson was used as a chance for them to present their final project and receive feedback from their classmates.

For the students’ final project, they were to summarize their new understanding of sustainable architecture in Oregon. Possibilities included their understanding of Indigenous structures, pioneer architecture, and current sustainable approaches. Typically, a final Architects in Schools project involves students collaborating to create some sort of community design as a team. Because they were learning from home, I asked them to reimagine a space they were familiar with.

The students impressed me by taking their final project prompt and really running with it. Some tackled new software such as Minecraft or created entire systems for their designs to interact with. One student created a Lego model house to store a to-scale raft for a nearby imaginary river, creating an entire site narrative for their design.

Another student showed a passion for rescue animals and created a maze of semi-underground ecosystems where they could stay sheltered from the rain and heat but still have access to natural light.

The students seemed especially drawn to sustainable design and loved the idea of working with nature. Almost every student’s final project took a fun spin on engaging plants, animals, wind, rain, or sun. One of my favorite moments was when a student stumbled upon a Corbusian principle – replacing the ground that the building was on by putting it on the roof with an accessible green roof.

Some students applied sustainability literally by using recycled materials in their physical models. It was impressive to see how thoughtful the 4th graders were and how naturally creative they were with expressing their ideas. There was no aspect of “this is how we usually do things” in their approach to design.

The kids brought energy to each Zoom lesson and were very supportive of each other as they presented their final projects. Volunteering for Architects in Schools was a welcome reprieve from the realities of the pandemic, and I look forward to teaching more about architecture in person in the future. Ultimately, this experience was a great reminder of how fun design can – and should – be.

See all of the Architects in Schools final projects here. Learn more about volunteering with the Architecture Foundation of Oregon by visiting the Architects in Schools page.