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Students Redesign Their Own Schools

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Student-designed school bus shelter.
By Chris Thompson

Up until a couple of years ago, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s strategies were pretty ordinary: tours of interesting buildings around Chicago, or publishing a high school architecture textbook.

But the foundation staff wanted to do try more interesting, a project that would compel students to really be immersed in the world of architecture and to solve a problem. They came up with DiscoverDesign, challenging students to redesign their schools, one piece at a time. Start with their lockers.

“A teenager doesn’t have much experience in a skyscraper,” says Jen Masengarb, the Foundation’s senior manager for educational research. “What really gets students worked up is my cafeteria is too dark, or I can’t fit all my stuff in my locker. For a teenager, the more riled up they get, the more they begin to imagine possibilities.”

Working under a teacher, students around the country have begun conceptualizing, redesigning, and ultimately submitting drafts for a variety of school functions: lockers, cafeterias, bike stands – even an entire technology wing. As the student thinks about what these functions have to do in order to be effective, they post each stage of their work online, to illustrate not just the final product, but the work process itself. “It’s much more than, ‘Tada! My work is done.’” Masengarb says.

The projects stimulate three essential areas of learning. Sketching and drawing out blueprints exercises art and drawing skills. Thinking about how people behave and want in, say, a technology wing provides an education in social science and government. Finally, writing up how a new tech wing would force students to organize their thoughts and present a coherent argument.


As students post every stage of their work online, working architects log on and offer suggestions, criticism, and feedback. Other students from around the country also post comments, often learning unexpected lessons. For example, students from Alaska might not be aware that a Florida school wouldn’t need hallways, freeing up space for new possibilities. And a Florida students would never imagine that an Alaska cafeteria would have to be designed into order to allow as much natural sunlight as possible.

And as students comment online, they get a chance to participate in the larger conversation without dealing with the awkward social dynamics that they encounter walking the halls of their actual schools. The site enables students to overcome their own social limitations.

So far, roughly 600 students have logged onto the site, and 150 projects have been posted. The Foundation is conducting a national contest to design the perfect cafeteria.

When the school year is up, the Chicago Architecture Foundation will relaunch the site yet again, this time offering badging as part of the comment functions. And next year, students will tackle the hardest project of all: the school bathroom.

“Kids would love to redesign their bathrooms,” Masengarb says. “There’s a lot of bullying in bathrooms, sometimes there are illegal activities – it’s not a very friendly space.”