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Students focus on the environment at Design Camp

Case Studies, Features | January 1, 2008 | By:

Teens find use for recycled highway billboards, and learn a valuable lesson in design-build.

In July, 2007 a group of eager high school students from around the country descended upon the Twin Cities for an intensive week of project-based learning at the University of Minnesota’s sixth-annual Design Camp. Organized through the Design Institute with support from the Target Corp., the diverse group of design teams focused their skills on reworking the environments (both large and small) within which high school students learn. Alongside, sporting, gearing, parading, gaming and telling, this year’s architecture group “Schooling” set out to rethink ideas about what might constitute an active learning environment and the effective means to achieving knowledge. Like any design project, the process was non-linear and often unpredictable, but the results provided a preview of the role that design will play in the future of education.

Early discussions with students revealed assumptions and biases about the spaces deemed worthy of the designation educational. Attempting to recast those assumptions, we challenged the students to examine spaces long considered secondary to classrooms as viable spaces for learning. Cafeteria, gymnasia, playgrounds and parking lots were scrutinized as spaces that offer sources of interaction on which learning could be modeled in a design-based curriculum. With food acknowledged as a universal social condenser, the cafeteria and acts of preparing, displaying and consuming food became the general programmatic charge for the Schooling team of students and faculty.

Knowing that the final day of camp entails a celebration and review of all work produced within the respective groups, the Schooling team set out to design the celebratory culmination of the day that centered on the consumption of 400 cupcakes by students, parents, critics and faculty. The team worked for four full days deliberating, strategizing, designing and building an all-encompassing experience centered on the notion of becoming cupcake. In the end, the design and implementation of the cupcake pavilion (as it came to be known) was really a delivery system (or excuse) for smuggling a range of purposeful instructions and lessons through the collaborative processes of design. Our project-based curriculum leveraged the problem-setting skills and scenario planning methods critical to design thinking, and synthesized such diverse skill sets as arithmetic, creative writing, programming, journalistic interviews, video editing, art history, physics, digital visualization and static structures.

Having committed early to a small footprint of our group’s efforts in the assembly of our pavilion, we chose to minimize waste and maximize flexibility in our design by using construction scaffolding as our basic building block for the cupcake pavilion. Donated for the week by Scaffold Service Inc. (St. Paul, Minn.) the system required a relatively low-level of construction skills to handle and all materials were returned at the end of the Camp. Recycled highway billboards provided the team with an adaptable and durable material to clad, skin and surface the scaffold structure. Salvaged from Franklin Outdoor Advertising (Clearwater, Minn.), the used billboards were removed from the waste stream and transformed into building materials that can be stored and reused by future Design Camp teams.

John Comazzi is an assistant professor of architecture in the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota; Anselmo Canfora is an assistant professor of architecture in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia; and Wendy Friedmeyer is Educational Programs Coordinator at the Design Institute, University of Minnesota.

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