Shaping tomorrow’s designers

According to the US Department of Labor, between now and 2020 the employment growth rate in architecture will exceed that of most other professions. Because elementary and high schools typically devote little time to the subject, however, tomorrow’s designers aren’t as well prepared as they could be.

The nonprofit Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) is working to address this gap. Through several decades of working with children, it has become a national leader in architectural education. And while it has historically concentrated on local schools, recent initiatives have been aimed at youth across the United States.

From its work in Chicago, CAF knew that many teachers were interested in incorporating architecture into their classes but lacked the time and tools to do so. To remedy this, the organization developed two award-winning textbooks. The first, a K-8 teacher resource book, helps educators use architecture to teach core curricula. “An elementary teacher’s day is so full,” CAF senior manager of educational research Jennifer Masengarb said. “We wanted to write materials that said, these are the core subjects that you have to teach anyway; here’s a way to teach them while also educating students about design.”


The second, a high school textbook, was designed to introduce students to design thinking. Because the relatively few schools that offer architecture classes tend to focus primarily on drafting, CAF created materials that would allow teachers to broaden the scope of their lessons.

While the textbook program proved extremely successful, winning multiple awards and being implemented in schools around the world, CAF found that older and more independently motivated students needed a more active learning platform. To this end, in January 2012 it launched a new website, The site brings together students, teachers, and practitioners, with architects and engineers volunteering as online mentors for project-based learning.

CAF volunteer Joseph Cliggott, a project manager at Rafael Viñoly Architects, said that the students he works with benefit both from the input of professional mentors and the ability to learn from peers across the nation. “When I was growing up you were only exposed to the 20 or 30 students in your class. Now all the sudden you can see work from all over the country or all over the world. You’re seeing a kid from Alaska who’s redesigning his school cafeteria, but then there’s a girl in Florida who’s doing the same project but in a completely different manner, because their experiences are different, the climate is different.”


As part of the launch, the CAF also started a free national high school architecture competition giving students the chance to redesign their own school (on paper, at least). The competition takes students through the stages required for a successful design, providing ideas about how to gather information as well as how to create striking visuals. The first assignments, for example, might be interviews with school employees and students about their needs and research into design precedents from around the world. “Unlike a typical competition where the student is just submitting her final, beautiful, “Aha!” rendering, the premise is that we want to help students through the design process,” Masengarb said. “We want to help them understand that design thinking isn’t always linear.”


In last year’s inaugural competition, 110 students from 30 high schools around the country submitted work. (Winning projects can be viewed on the Discover Design website.) To date, 382 students have registered for this year’s competition, the results of which will be announced in June.

The CAF is currently seeking practicing designers to serve on the jury for this year’s competition. For more information, visit

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