Architecture in the Schools at DC’s Whittier Education Campus

By Alina del Castillo and Hannah Weber

Last fall, we volunteered for a semester in the Washington Architectural Foundation’s Architecture in the Schools program, where architects go into the classroom and give students hands-on experience with planning, designing, drafting and building models.

This year, we worked with Mrs. Charmagne Mann’s third graders at J. G. Whittier Education Campus, a public school in Northwest Washington whose curriculum is built around science, technology, engineering and math.

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The students in Mrs. Mann’s history and geography class decided to design a monument to the well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The final project—consisting of a site model, floor plans and building section—depicted a design developed by the students. Our role was to organize and guide the design process, fostering teamwork both in small groups and throughout the class as a whole.

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The students analyzed existing monuments in DC that they had been learning about in their history and geography classes. They identified forms, materials and other building elements that designers used to create those monuments. After studying these precedents, the students were ready to design their own monument!

After researching several candidates, the students voted on Tyson as the subject for their design. Working in small groups, they presented ideas using the concepts they had learned from analyzing existing monuments, which were then incorporated into the main class design.

Their first task was to create clay models for a schematic design:

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After the first round, it was clear that the monument would involve the planets and the solar system. The sun became a large building that would house a museum and planetarium, much like at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, where Tyson is the director.

The planets orbiting the sun are represented as sculptural elements in a park the students designed. Highlights of the park include the moat around the site and large grassy areas to play on. The children were very big on incorporating a lot of activities!

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The design development phase, which led to the final result shown above, involved creating a site plan and elevations.

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The final presentation included formal drawings on architects’ title-block pages:

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What we found most fulfilling about working with the students is how surprising they are. You never know what they will notice or come up with. It keeps you on your toes, but it also helps you to stay flexible as a designer.

Barnes Vanze has been participating in the Architecture in the Schools program for more than 10 years. Principal Steve Vanze started doing it for the first few years—where design projects ranged from a Medieval cathedral to a model of the Jefferson Memorial—and other architects at the firm have been doing it every year since then.

At this year’s exhibition, the mother of one of our students from last year approached us and said we had inspired her son to grow up and become an architect! It is very rewarding to see our efforts have an effect beyond the eight weeks we spend in the classroom.