EQUIP Backpacks

01.13.2016 / Project News

By Ray Bowman

It might be hard to believe, but I didn't know what an architect was until I found myself in college, learning how to be one. It was baffling at first, but the truth is that my high school teachers and peers couldn't have told me even if they wanted to. They had the same high-level understanding that I did, which was that architects design houses or skyscrapers on drafting boards in white rooms wearing black clothes.

As it happens, almost none of that is true, which is why I like to use my flexible schedule to get in front of young kids and do my best to demystify the profession of architecture. Programs like EQUIP Backpacks, run by Carnegie Mellon University, are a great way to do that.

Here's how it works: Elementary school teachers pick from a selection of different "backpacks." Each backpack has supplies equipped to teach a few lessons on architecture. The backpack that I taught from was called "Architecture without Walls". The backpack was filled with supplies to construct a terrain model and some workbooks, all with the intent of teaching a lesson about landscape architecture. By the end, the kids were using everything that they learned to design a park pavilion.

In total, I taught eight sessions with the help of a fellow architect.

It was a challenge.

About a quarter of the kids are learning English as a second language, so we had to be especially careful in our balancing vocabulary skills with drawing and modeling. For the most part, the kids weren't afraid to take chances and be fantastically wrong about the difficult vocabulary we were teaching them. And in equal shares, they were astonishingly correct. This was really refreshing as I have more experience working with older kids who are typically more reserved and who take fewer big leaps.

One area where the kids were significantly less confident was their drawing ability. This was the only time that I encountered resistance nearly across-the-board. I had to provide one-on-one coaching to get most students to merely pick up their pencils. I was disheartened to see their self-consciousness getting in the way of their development, especially after seeing their pretty decent sketches. With few exceptions, I was able to understand what they were trying to get across through their drawings.

And that's architecture at a fundamental level: communicating an idea with pictures, through whatever means possible.

What enthusiasm they lacked for drawing, they more than made up for when working with models. The models are set up like a freeform puzzle, with shapes cut out of green plastic and held in place by dowel rod trees.

The kids' final models were amazing, each of them had at least one unique feature.

CMU is looking to expand and grow this program in the future and they need more architects to make it happen. I can personally say that it's very much worth the time, so if you're interested, I'd love to chat with you about it. I can be reached at rbowman@lga-partners.com.

In the meantime, a few more kids understand what an architect does, and that not all of us wear all black every day.