Architects give Baltimore students lessons to build on

When Beechfield Elementary/Middle School fifth-graders were asked to design their dream homes 15 years ago, they almost always included a "safe room," a place where they could escape violence, according to Ayers Saint Gross president Jim Wheeler.

Today, none do. Their dream houses have video game rooms and swimming pools.

It's a particularly gratifying shift for the architects volunteering in the West Baltimore public school to see.

"One day, we'll hire one of these students," Wheeler said. "That's our long-term goal."

Ayers Saint Gross — a firm whose many projects include work on the Baltimore Convention Center expansion and the 238,000-square-foot physics and astronomy building at the Johns Hopkins University — employees have been involved with the school in various capacities since 1997. They hold clothing and food drives. They provide backpacks with school supplies. And several years ago, the firm created a coloring book, "Colorful World of Architecture," to expose Beechfield students to architecture.

The coloring book has become the basis of a program called Careers in Design. This year, 16 students participated in the seven-session program, learning about planning, building architecture, construction, graphic design, interior design, and landscape architecture.

"It ties into math, reading, social studies and science skills," said Rashedda Carroll, who teaches fifth grade at the school.

One week, students designed a house for a classmate. They had to interview their classmates to find out what was important to them, and reflect those preferences in their designs. Then, they had to present to the class. The next week, they picked a room to design, using magazine pictures and material samples.

"They ask insightful questions," said Joel Fidler, a senior associate at Ayers Saint Gross. "To see their expressions, their curiosity — it's rewarding."

In the construction lesson, students used toothpicks and gumdrops to construct the tallest structures they could. In landscape architecture, they used an aerial photograph to re-work their school grounds. And in a graphic design session, they devised names and logos for businesses.

The program exposes students to potential careers, Carroll said, adding, "Many are not exposed to these possibilities. They see teachers and police officers and athletes, but not architects."

In the final week of the program at the end of May, the students visited the Locust Point waterfront office of Ayers Saint Gross. They worked on the computers with the architects, talked with staff from the Baltimore School of Design and ate pizza with the company president.

"This is the highlight — to see the architects at work," Carroll said.

At the computer, Channel Devaughn and Nina Jackson reviewed the options on their dream house with architect Jordan Hawes, one of the leaders of the program.

"Can you make the side smooth?" Channel asked, pointing to the exterior.

"That could be a window," Hawes suggested, then pulled out some fabric samples to discuss stain-resistant options for the porch awning.

Channel is already considering her career options.

"I might be a designer, and support my family," the 11-year-old who has five siblings said.

Nina particularly enjoyed the lessons on graphic design, but the day they built structures from gumdrops and toothpicks stands out.

"I liked it," she said shyly.

In another cubicle, Katia Stanford and Somari Wilkes designed a bi-level restaurant with a deck.

"I was thinking of becoming a beautician, but I think I might be a designer," said Katia. "I like to show my ideas."

At the beginning, the students know very little about architecture, Fidler said.

"By the end, they're asking for jobs," he said, chuckling. "Of course, the fact that we can bring our dogs to the office on Fridays might also have something to do with it."

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