Designing an Education for Youths: Volunteers Help D.C. Students

Article excerpt

A group of U.S. scientists, engineers and psychologists has been selected to establish a colony on the surface of the moon. These pioneers will take along a limited amount of food, water and equipment and will be periodically resupplied by the space shuttle.

Their goal: develop a hydrospheric lab for filtering and recycling water, an atmospheric lab for recycling air and a heating plant. They can expect fresh supplies in six months.

Sound like the latest project from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Something out of the log of the Starship Enterprise?

It's actually an architectural study undertaken by sixth-graders at Northeast's Brookland Elementary School, with the help of Architecture in the Schools (AIS).

Run by the Washington Architectural Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy institution, AIS works with D.C. schools, pairing volunteer architects and teachers. In an intense eight-week program, the volunteers and teachers undertake various projects intended to heighten students' awareness of their community, as well as reinforce their regular classroom curriculum.

The results of this spring semester's work can be seen in an exhibition at the Charles Sumner School Museum, on view through June 23.

The Brookland students, led by AIS volunteer Jim Russell and teacher Mary Makel, first researched earlier civilizations, such as the Incas, Aztecs and American Indians. They then speculated on what would be needed to sustain a colony on the moon.

Their efforts were surprisingly sophisticated and charmingly naive. Besides atmospheric labs and emergency support systems, the students also included in their moon colony several familiar building types, including a Cinnabon shop.

AIS is based on several similar national programs and was first launched in the District in 1992. Since then, 80 classrooms have participated, representing elementary, middle and high schools in every ward of the city.

"We haven't hit every school yet," says Mary Kay Lanzillota, AIS's volunteer director, "but there's a waiting list to sign up."

The program helps to introduce children to architecture and to serve as a curriculum enrichment tool, building on what the students are working on in their own course of study. Exposure to the design process also helps them develop analytical and creative skills.

The projects often entail the study of a school's surrounding neighborhood. First-graders at Ross Elementary School in Northwest, for example, looked for patterns in buildings around them and then made clay tiles showing what they found.

Second- and third-graders at Burrville Elementary School in Northeast explored the meaning of "community" and then designed and built models of a neighborhood they would like to live in.

Students at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest experimented with structures and the nature of materials. In studying wood, masonry and concrete, they used popsicle sticks, sugar cubes and plaster to build models of various building styles. The structures were then loaded until they collapsed, allowing the young designers to see which material is best suited for each condition.

"The students really got into building something that was going to be destroyed," jokes Miss Lanzillota, noting the irony that the success of the exercise was tied to the failure of the structure. …