How to Teach Landscape Architecture to High School Students

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was your age to meet all these amazing designers,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, at the start of the High School Design Summit in Washington, D.C., where 200 D.C. public high school students got to learn from national design award winners from all disciplines. Out of the whole group, about 25 students were put into small groups of four and asked to try out landscape architecture, practicing both design thinking and collaboration. Students were given a variety of prototyping materials, including straws, paper, and wire, to create models based on challenges. Students were asked to either create a healthy outdoor park or a space that would benefit their neighborhood in just 45 minutes. As they raced to create their prototypes, national design award winning-landscape architects hovered, critiqued, and offered guidance.

As the landscape architects interacted with the students, I asked them what they thought about the state of high school design education. Margie Ruddick, ASLA, author of Wild by Design, who won the national design award in 2013, said “landscape architecture, and design in general, needs to be better integrated into the curricula. Design is a part of life and it needs to be better included in our educational system.” She said with the lack of opportunities to explore the world of design, “too many kids don’t even know they are designers.” She was one of those kids: as a high school student she was “completely bored working in 2D; I wanted to be in 3D!” But there were few opportunities for her to express herself using models.

Shane Coen, FASLA, Coen + Partners, who won the design award in 2015, said U.S. undergraduate enrollment in landscape architecture is falling, in large part because there is so little awareness of the profession in high schools. He believes the mission of every landscape architect should be go to a high school and show students what it’s about. Coen said “when I go to talk to high school students, they don’t even know what landscape architecture is and what a powerful, broad field it is. That’s a serious issue.”

And Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal at Hargreaves Associates, which just won this year’s award, said “high school education for landscape architecture is non-existent. The biggest concern is these students never make it to a university program. We just aren’t getting the numbers we need. I’ve spoken to people at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), and they see a crisis coming. Employers are also having a hard time hiring and they are searching all the time.” Jones also said landscape architecture must become more diverse. She added it was actually First Lady Michelle Obama’s idea to bring together the D.C. public school students and the design winners — “I couldn’t agree more with this approach.”

For some additional perspective, Halima Johnson, who runs teen programs at the Cooper Hewitt, said: “high school students in general don’t know landscape architecture is a thing. But landscape architecture isn’t the only design field with this problem. They also don’t understand interaction design or product design.” She said it’s important to keep it simple and “lead them to it.” For example, a good design challenge is asking them to design a park or outdoor space “before actually explaining to them this is a discipline.”

Many of the students got into it. Watching the student groups busy constructing their models, Ruddick commented that “some groups are on fire and some are stuck.” With some groups, “there is a clear leader who catalyzes the design process, and then the others who are deferential.” She said in the real world, it’s not much different: “there always has to be one design lead, even in a collaborative process. Otherwise, you can get lost and get design by committee.” The design leader “has to have the ability to let the process play out and not get freaked out but channel things without steamrolling.” Jones, also helping the teams, largely concurred: “there were some students who just dove in. They were natural design leaders.” But she said “someone started and then that gave others the ability to start, too.”

And both smiled when they saw some teams were struggling with competing design visions. Jones joked: “wow, that never happens in the real world.”

One team, seen in the image up top, ended up creating a set of cascading pools. As Big Daddy Sal, one student, explained, “there’s a kiddie pool, an intermediate pool, with a slide, and then an advanced pool that can only be reached by a 100-foot ladder. You can just chill up there. There’s also a hot tub for older people.”

Deshala, a local high school student, said her team created “a cool-kids spot, with a pool and an area where they can just sit on the grass.” Her team purposefully designed a space that would provide shade.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

One team created a giant hammock, covered in solar panels that power a spinning umbrella upon which multimedia is projected. They were also focused on providing shade. “There’s a special area just for pets, too.”

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

Marcus, another student, explained that their team created an outdoor coffee shop, with palm trees.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

And, lastly, one team created a “Bad Girls Club playhouse, a sanctuary for anyone who is a girl to express themselves emotionally and physically.” The team went outside the toolkit provided the Cooper Hewitt, using the light from a cell phone to illuminate the model.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

As David Skorton, president of the Smithsonian, said later in the day, “design is an optimistic endeavor.” And perhaps for some of these students, the day made them more optimistic that they too can use design to solve our problems. Perhaps some will even consider a new path.

One thought on “How to Teach Landscape Architecture to High School Students

  1. Randal Scott Romie, ASLA 05/18/2016 / 11:05 am

    This article is extremely well-timed and helpful for me. I will be presenting Landscape Architecture to a high-school group of Boy & Girl Scouts in a week-long vocational summer camp along with Architects and Builders. The 45 minute exercise mentioned in your article is a winner, and I’m impressed with the thought and results. I have visited high schools on their professional days. I agree, not many know about LA. The 2-3 students that do actively seek information seem to be destined for an LA major.

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