Architects in Schools: Empowering Young Minds

By Bethany Chaney, Galen Whalen & Hannah Oitzman, Design Staff

STEM in elementary school
Hennebery Eddy Design Staff Galen Whalen introduces a structural shapes lesson to students at Cooper Mountain Elementary.

As volunteers for the Architecture Foundation of Oregon’s Architects in Schools (AiS) program, Hennebery Eddy design staff Bethany Chaney, Galen Whalen, and Hannah Oitzman partnered with Elyssa Adams from Holmes Structures to teach five lessons to fourth-graders at Cooper Mountain Elementary in Beaverton.

During these lessons, students explored multiple concepts, from “what is architecture” to structural shapes, flexing their creative muscles in a final project where they worked in groups to design and build models of their “dream school.” The program encourages collaboration and critical thinking, empowering students to approach design challenges with open minds and innovative solutions. Below, Bethany, Galen, and Hannah summarize their experiences with the program and discuss the importance of exposing kids to creative design and problem-solving.


What drew you to working with Architects in Schools?

HANNAH: I heard about AiS from a friend and thought it would be fun to share my love for architecture with the next generation. I would have loved to participate in a program like this when I was a kid, so I want to provide that opportunity for as many students as possible.

BETHANY: I have been positively impacted by mentors at all stages of my life, so I wanted to become a mentor for the next generation. My best friend is an elementary school teacher, so before discovering AiS, I would go into her classroom to show her students my school projects, answer their questions, and do activities with them. I loved it!

GALEN: I volunteered in a similar program called Eye to Eye, where college students with learning differences (ADD, Dyslexia, etc.) mentored elementary school students with similar learning differences. Through art activities and hands-on projects, students gained confidence in a school environment. I found that program very rewarding, and AiS seemed like a great opportunity to continue that thread.

STEM in elementary school
Students apply structural concepts to design practical solutions for a book tower.

What benefit does this experience provide to schools and students?

BETHANY: I love that it introduces kids early on to these professions; I did not hear about architecture until middle school. The students ask such good questions and make you think about the fundamentals of why we do what we do. It helps me be a better designer to see how big they can dream. Even if they do not go into A/E/C professions, it gives them a creative outlet and the opportunity to work toward a goal with a team.

GALEN: The kids asked questions I rarely hear in my daily workflow that are incredibly important to the design process, giving me a zoomed-out view of the A/E/C industry. Showing different professions to kids at this age is a powerful lesson that everything around them is part of a collaborative design process.

HANNAH: The students are so creative and excited. It inspires me in my daily workflow. I would recommend anyone in the architecture field to volunteer, even if you do not know what to teach; they have example curriculums you can work from. This program enables students to wrestle with open-ended problems where there is more than one answer. In a larger sense, this experience provides students with a unique look into the profession of architecture (and construction and engineering) that many students do not get. It expands their knowledge and understanding of the built environment and appreciation of all the factors that go into it.

STEM in elementary school
Students designed and built models of their “dream school” for the program’s final project.

What was your favorite experience from this program?

GALEN: The final project was an amazing part of the process. Seeing their imaginations run wild with ideas and then using their new drawing and building skills was very rewarding.

HANNAH: We gave life to old architectural material samples that our interiors department no longer needed, making them available for students to use in their final project models. I loved seeing their grand ideas and creativity come to life in their designs.

BETHANY: There are always one or two kids that get really into it, and this year there was a boy who went all-in after the floor plan lesson. He started drawing big floor plans of their school and later had his dad help him build a nice model for their final project. All the kids are very creative, but the ones who get invested in it are super fun to watch over the residency.