Kids: They design the darndest things!

February 24, 2016 Mark Adamiak

By Mark Adamiak

From 1st graders to high school art students, architecture ignites creativity


I've been participating in the Architecture in Schools (AIS) program ever since I started working for Stantec in the summer of 2014. Sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, the AIS program sends architects, engineers, and interior designers to visit local schools to teach students about design and the built environment. Over the past two years employees from our Reston, VA office have taught Lessons of Architecture and Design to more than 50 students at the elementary, middle, and high school level.

The Reston office team specializes in the design of K-12 schools, so getting involved in the classroom has been a great opportunity to develop relationships with the kids and teachers that we aim to serve and to experience first-hand the day-to-day activities that take place within the buildings we design. It’s also been an important reminder about what a school can mean to a child. 

The range of student designs for the addition impressed the architectural team.

In AIS, we aim to provide context for what the kids may already know about architecture and design while explaining what is taking place all around them. We then fit that into the larger context of community and move up and down in scale to explain various architectural and design components. Our classes start with a 10-15 minute lesson followed by building, drawing, or an interactive exercise. Each semester concludes with a final project that students present to an audience of architects, parents, teachers, and other interested observers.

Tailoring the Lesson Plan
My first experience was a study in urbanism with 6th graders at Willow Springs Elementary in Fairfax County. We discussed the importance of cities, their historical significance, and their role in a sustainable society. The students’ project was to design their own city. Each of them picked a building use and designed within the context of their peers’ buildings. The students came up with fantastic designs for casinos, restaurants, metro stations, and fire houses built from Popsicle sticks, cereal boxes, and whatever else they could find.

We next worked with 1st graders in Arlington. For younger students, we teach a broader view of architecture and explain the relationship between architects and the construction industry. Analogies are common such as comparing buildings to the human body using bones to represent structure; organs to represent HVAC, electrical, plumbing; and skin to represent cladding. The kids learned to draw in plan, section, elevation, and perspective and built a massive Styrofoam city for their final project.

At Stone Bridge High School, students presented their models to a discerning audience.


With our most recent class, we created a sample architecture studio for high school juniors in Loudoun County. We engaged this art class about their ideas to improve the fine arts wing of their high school building. The class collaboratively defined controlling issues for the students, and for the school administration, and ways these issues could be improved with an addition.

Next, the students designed and built a model of their vision for the addition. Their ideas included theaters, outdoor dining, gardens, ponds and water features. The students’ projects also incorporated exhibition and performance space to enhance the daily activities for the fine arts students. This exercise in real-world problem solving was capped by a presentation of their designs to their teachers, school principal, and panel of Stantec architects.

Each age group has offered different challenges as well potential. I’ve been surprised and impressed with what each age group was capable of. The younger students offer unbridled enthusiasm and energy, which really makes the challenge keeping them focused and attentive. With the older students, the burden was on us to engage them and get them excited through conversation and activities.

While my involvement started as a means to educate students in my local communities, I have been surprised to see how well AIS connects students to their local communities, whether that community is as immediate as their own school building, or as wide open as their hometown and beyond.


Want to see more? A great video of the AIS program at Stone Bridge High School is posted to the Loudoun County Public Schools’ website. 

About the Author

Mark Adamiak is a designer focused on K-12 education projects in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area.

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