Students develop creative construction projects in Design LAB

Imagine a school that only teaches children about dinosaurs. Or an interstellar academy for extraterrestrials to learn more about Earth. Or a gym where teens can train alongside Bengals players, studying the discipline needed to reach the NFL.

That’s the kind of playful thinking behind the “learning spaces” that Cincinnati students showcased this year in Design LAB: Learn and Build, an elementary school program run by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati. For an entire semester, the children learned to design, finance, build and manage construction projects.

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Design LAB began in the late 1980s as a program called Architect by Children. It’s free for schools in Greater Cincinnati, though it does require a lot of coordination from teachers.

Christen Lubbers, the foundation’s executive director, said the number of participating schools has grown since its inception but has slowed during the pandemic. This past spring semester, Design Lab was taught in 56 classrooms at 23 Greater Cincinnati schools to about 1,174 kids, up from 2,000 kids before the pandemic..

Each year, students and volunteers design projects around a central theme that usually coincides with what’s happening around the world or in Cincinnati. Several years ago, students focused on building bridges: one child designed a bridge to the sky to visit his grandparents, another an electromagnetic tunnel for intercontinental travel.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Design LAB turned to virtual learning and on the theme of “dwellings”.

“It was a way for them [kids] to reimagine the spaces that surrounded them then,” Lubbers said.

Last semester, students ages kindergarten through eighth grade participated in in-person Design LAB on the theme of “learning spaces.” Dozen of volunteers from architectural firms, construction companies and area universities brought their expertise in person to their classrooms.

“Our volunteers are trained to push students to think beyond what they think of first,” Lubbers said. “The Design LAB process leads students to understand how to push their own limits.”

This year's Design LAB theme was

Chase Eggers, project manager in the Cincinnati office of Skanska USA, a construction and development company, has worked with Design Lab for more than four years. From January to May, he partnered with Leslie Burklow, a teacher at EH Greene Middle School in Blue Ash, to teach the program to his four math classes.

“We asked the kids early on which experts they think they can contribute to a construction project, because we want them to understand that it’s not just architects and engineers or construction managers who build things,” said said Eggers. “Kids need to understand that there are also career paths in the technical trades.”

Third grade students at Indian Hill Elementary School have designed a futuristic classroom where students can study STEM subjects in a sustainably built environment

Creating architectural models that represent their big design idea isn’t the only hands-on way kids learn during Design LAB. They also learn how to work with clients and interpret their needs, scout site locations, calculate project estimates and evaluations, draw to scale, and select materials. This year, students studied sustainable building design and took field trips to Music Hall and the Civic Garden Center.

When the pandemic forced the program to go completely virtual, Eggers zoomed in with on-site students at projects around Cincinnati. “They got to see a lot more backstage action than they normally would in class,” he said.

Throughout the semester, the children participated in design critiques in front of other students and volunteers, which is common practice in the real world and in architecture schools. At the end of the year, their work was presented in a public exhibition and examined by a jury.

Jurors examine the models at the annual Design LAB year-end public exhibition in Over-the-Rhine.

Eggers and Burklow have worked with Design LAB for so long that some of their former students are now working in industry or actively considering building their own homes. Some even return to work as volunteers. “I would like to hope that our program pushed them in that direction,” Eggers said.

“I have students who come back to me years later and ask to see pictures of the work they’ve done with us,” Burklow added. “They really remember those projects!”

Madeira Elementary School sophomores have designed their own Cincinnati Art Museum where children learn about painting, sculpture and art history.

Bob Wise, 20, took Design LAB with Burklow in 2014. A sixth-grade student at EH Greene, he’s now a third-year chemical engineering major at Ohio State University.

“I think the biggest benefit has been learning to walk through the different design processes and tackle any problem that comes my way,” he said. “I have Mrs. Burklow to thank for that. She is still one of my favorite teachers.”

Design LAB students pose for a class photo.

For the next school year, Design LAB will encourage students to explore the theme of “gathering spaces”. Volunteer registration will begin in the fall. To learn more about the program, visit architecturecincy.org.

Sydney Franklin reports on real estate activity in Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter @sydreyfrank_ and send story tips to [email protected]r.com.

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