In traditional learning, instructors start by teaching students skills, concepts, and information. Only later do students apply what they learned. In project-based learning, the reverse is true: students are asked to solve an open-ended question or challenge that has real-world relevance. They learn what they need to achieve their goal. Although the projects are carefully structured, students collaborate in small teams, defining the tasks, discussing and reflecting on their values, critiquing each others’ work, and coming together to create a finished product or presentation.
Architectural projects lend themselves well to project-based learning. They involve not only designing, but also engineering, financing, managing client relationships, and integrating environmental sustainability. In addition, architecture is collaborative by nature. And while students learn about design, engineering, and construction, they’re also building math, science, and communication skills and gaining insight into broader issues of political science and public policy. Architecture and project-based learning share a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to problem solving well suited to the pedagogical shift underway in higher education today (particularly in the sciences) toward interdisciplinary teaching/learning and research.
My first real sense of what project-based learning can do came out of the development of the Build San Francisco Institute in the 1990s. Around this same time, my wife and I were trying to decide whether to send our kids to public or private school, so I was immersed in the topic of quality education. I was a member of the board of the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, and I found that my fellow board members shared my interest in helping the profession support e credit for these afternoon sessions through the school district.
The program exposes students to real-world projects led by mentors and full-time teachers. Students collaborate in small teams and produce videos, models, drawings, and other tangible things that reflect what they’ve learned. They often present these in public forums. One year, students from six San Francisco high schools worked together to design and create sixteen ceramic tiles for San Francisco’s Pier 14, which the city was restoring for public use. Students had ten weeks to come up with a theme, make a proposal to the Port of San Francisco Commission for approval, create the designs, glaze and enhance public education. Together, we launched the Build San Francisco Institute. Initially an after-school program, it has evolved into a full partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District, various public agencies, and more than fifty professional design and construction firms acting as mentors.
On average, twenty-five San Francisco high school students pair up with mentors, who work with them two afternoons each week throughout a semester, exposing them to the workings of their practice. The other three afternoons, the students are in a classroom downtown hearing visiting architects and other professionals speak, doing classroom assignments, and learning the latest software, like AutoCAD and even Revit. They earn college-accepted coursed fire the tiles, and deliver them for installation. The commission sent the students back to the drawing board after their first presentation to refine and focus their initial concept, replicating the back- and-forth dialogue that is an integral part of real world projects. When the revised design was approved, they felt a greater sense of pride and accomplishment, and they had an authentic sense of the realities of professional life. Other projects that Build San Francisco students have been involved with include the San Francisco Ferry Building renovation, Pac Bell Park, and the renovation of Piers 1-1/2, 3 and 5.
One student I mentored through Build San Francisco a few years ago was a former
gang member. He has told me that his intern- ship with our firm turned his life around—he went on to graduate from high school and was accepted at San Francisco State University. Last I heard, he wanted to transfer to the architecture program at UC Berkeley.
My positive experiences with the Build San Francisco Institute led to my becoming involved with another educational endeavor that incorporates project-based learning. In 2002, I was introduced to the founders of Envision Schools, a charter school organization in the Bay Area whose mission is to bring high-quality college preparatory education to underserved urban youth, particularly those who will be the first in their families to attend college. At the time, Envision was just getting off the ground and didn’t yet have any sites for the five schools it was planning to launch. I was intrigued by Envision’s focus on combining academic and project-based learn- ing, using the arts and technology to enhance student learning. I helped put the school in touch with contacts in the finance, construction, and development worlds and scouted potential school sites. In the end, the schools were provided buildings from each local chartering school district, as mandated under California law, but by that time I was hooked by its vision and had become a board member.
Currently there are four Envision Schools in the Bay Area two in San Francisco, one in Oakland, and one in Hayward—serving approximately 1,200 students. Envision’s curriculum involves the same elements as Build San Francisco: research, analysis, discussion, and portfolio presentation. It has received national recognition as a model for public high school education. More than 93% of Envision graduates are attending either a two- or four-year college, compared with 40% of all California high school graduates. Envision Schools is one of a small handful of charter school man- agement organizations in the country to be funded directly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, receiving several million dollars to help create high- quality options for high school education in California. In 2005, the United States Department of Education named Envisions’ City Arts and Technology High School as one of twelve exemplary schools in the country.
I’ve seen the difference Envision Schools makes in the lives of its students. At the end of their senior year, students must develop a final defense of their work, a public presentation that is attended by their fellow students and parents. A successful presentation is a requirement of graduation. They spend a month and a half working intensively with their teachers to prepare these portfolios, which tend to be highly creative and address substantive issues. Recent examples include a presentation on land use in San Francisco; a study of banned books in the United States; and a multimedia “museum” about the Holocaust, blending digital design, theatrical performance, sculpture, graphic art, and radio broadcasts.
Seeing the Envision students present their portfolios, much as architecture students present their design work in school, has left a profound impression on me. Not only has it convinced me that project-based learning enables a student to learn a subject from many points of view, but it also has given me great hope for the prospect of transforming public education.
Build San Francisco and Envision Schools show that engaging students in real-world projects is a great motivator—it builds enthusiasm and provides a reason to learn. With a concrete problem to solve, students have to bring together information and approaches from multiple disciplines, dig deeper into what they’ve been taught, and acquire new skills. They retain knowledge longer than with traditional education, they gain confidence in making presentations to adults, and they learn to work together more effectively. Architecture is not just a profession for creating buildings; it can also shape an educational process that motivates young students to excel, become educated citizens and consumers of architecture and perhaps even professionals themselves.