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Design workshop builds bright futures

July 18, 2007

For as long as he can remember, Nicholas Tehrani, a sophomore from Phoenix’s BioScience High School, has been taking complex devices apart to see how they work. Over the years, he’s disassembled a fax machine, cell phones, and even two of his own laptops.

“I like learning how things are put together,” he grins.But for three weeks this June, Tehrani satisfied his curiosity in a different way – by studying design at ASU’s Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL) along with twenty-seven other high school students in the first annual Summer Design Workshop.

Thanks to generous financial support from architects, design professionals, and other sponsors, underrepresented students received an all-expense paid summer workshop that took them on field trips to buildings known for innovative architecture, offered hands-on design projects, and introduced them to many experts in different design fields.

Architect Mark Ryan, a visiting ASU professor in the College of Design and co-director of the workshop, feels providing such experiences is crucial to the workshop’s goals.

“This workshop is about opening students’ eyes and exposing them to things they’ve never been exposed to,” he states. “Some students might love gardening, for example, but not know about landscape architecture – they’re still exploring. So we want to give students the tools to take control of their lives, let them see what they can do, and show them how much work it takes to be successful.”

To accomplish this, ASU professors and volunteer ASU students led high school students on tours of Burton Barr Central Library, Taliesin West, and the Phoenix Art Museum to examine the buildings’ architecture. Many students were struck by how the structures affect visitors physically and mentally.

“I learned a lot about how you can influence emotion through space,” says Gustavo Chaydez, a student from Caesar Chavez High School. “I walked into Taliesin and there was so much enclosed space I felt claustrophobic. Then we walked into a room that opened up and that completely changed the way I felt – I liked that element of surprise. So now when I walk into a building, it’s not just another building, it’s a project to observe.”

Jose Bernardi, an associate professor in interior design and co-director of the workshop, stresses designers must consider everything about a structure to make a design effective.

“Our discipline works on behalf of people – designers must think of the people using their designs as human beings,” he states. “They have to take into account aging bodies, tall bodies, different cultures, and disabilities.”

To make this point, Bernardi and Ryan had students construct large-scale cardboard models of corridors, doorways, and chairs. Some students supported sections with their bodies, letting them feel how tension and weight influence design. Others walked through the models, letting classmates know if certain sections needed to be raised or widened and learning first-hand how design can affect different bodies.

Students also worked on personal projects, such as small-scale cardboard models of houses divided by a wall. Although students worked from the same blueprint, Bernardi and Ryan encouraged them to think creatively about their wall’s purpose – noting walls can bring neighbors together as well as keep them apart. In response, students produced a number of inventive designs, from walls that provide shade for communal pools, to walls made of water fountains that provide cooling.

“This program has been the most exciting, finger-cutting, eye-opening experience I have ever had,” jokes Cynthia Fontes, a senior at NFL Yet College Prep Academy, recalling her trips to the first aid kit. Minor mishaps aside, students enjoyed building their models, often working on them over weekends to add cardboard furniture and other unique touches.

While many of these students are interested in architecture, the directors wanted the workshop to inform students of other design fields – from industrial design to landscaping to environmental planning.

“A lot of people don’t realize all the possibilities you have going into the College of Design – design is not just architecture,” states Tim Kniseley, program coordinator of the workshop. “Design is furniture, color, lighting – it’s in everything we use.”

To make students aware of such possibilities, several design professionals were invited to speak to students, including Vern Swaback, former apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, and Laurel Arndt, an ASU guest lecturer and expert in environmental planning.

“I’d like the kids to understand that design is a critical part of city planning whether you’re an architect or a landscape architect or planner,” says Arndt who spoke to students on how urban planning can impact Arizona’s environment. “I think the creative ability to think about design is really critical especially when it comes to engineering solutions.”

For Tino Hernandez, a senior at Alhambra High School, such experiences helped foster an interest in landscape design. Others, such as Nicholas Tehrani, expressed an interest in industrial design. Still others found themselves inspired to pursue different paths.

“One girl, Lisa Marie Almaraz, told me, ‘I want to be a prosecutor’,” recalls Bernardi. “I asked her, ‘So why are you taking this workshop?’ And she told me, ‘Because I like to think.’ I feel that shows how design can help students of all interests.”

In the future, program coordinator Kniseley will remain in contact with the students and invite them to additional PURL events. As students prepare to graduate, Kniseley will also provide information on college applications and financial aid, enabling students to take advantage of all of ASU’s resources.

For now, however, students feel they have already gained much from their experiences. At the workshop’s final exhibition, students led parents, architects, and ASU professors on tours of their work, impressing many professional designers. Acclaimed architect William Bruder particularly enjoyed viewing the students’ models, noting the aptitude shown by the students is comparable to a freshman college class.

“ASU’s College of Design should be commended for starting this program,” states Bruder. “I’ll bet if you look five or ten years down the road, you’ll see a large percentage of these students doing something very interesting with their lives. It might not all be in architecture, but they will be able to make those choices because in the summer of 2007, they were given the chance to see the world from a different point of view.”

For a closer look at the workshop, please visit the Summer Design Workshop blog and web site.