October 10, 2010

BEE: Built Environment Education

I have been asked about integrating aspects of architectural history into K-12 curricula, which is something I did on a very small scale when my kids were in elementary school in the 1990s. I never went so far as to align the activities we did with state standards, but that’s because I worked closely with teachers.

First, I looked at what the American Institute of Architects (AIA) had done with their Built Environment Education (BEE) curriculum. Searching for it now in 2010, it seems that others have taken it up, because there are a lot of hits online. But Alan Sandler, with whom I corresponded, wrote an article in Art Education (v. 42, no. 5, pp. 13-16) in 1989 called, “Learning by Design: The AIA Elementary and Secondary Education Program.” Illustrated with drawings of buildings by children, the article lays out the steps that the AIA took to integrate principles about the built environment into established curriculum, using teacher training, activity development, and networking. Locally, in Champaign, Gary Olsen and Michele Olsen and their office created the Architeacher program, which still seems to be a going concern.

With young children, awareness and appreciation of the natural and built environments and their interactions, as well as visual thinking and observation skills are probably as, if not more important, than any mastery of content.

For my daughter’s class, we began by measuring the classroom. We then had to scale down the measurements in order to draw the plan, and we made symbols for doors and windows. These steps involve vocabulary building, math and drawing. We talked about how one classroom connected to the hallway, and all the other parts of the building.

I had taken photographs of details of buildings near the elementary school where my daughter went. These were mostly pictures of windows, roof details, foundation stones, porch columns, and doors, which I mounted on poster board and laminated. Groups of about five children and an adult then went on a treasure hunt to match the photos with the buildings around the school, following a map that I gave to each adult leader. Each group headed in a different direction to find their own “treasures.”

There are lots of other activities that relate to buildings and history and connect to basic skills for elementary-level students:

  • The game of “Blockhead” helps kids learn about shapes, loads and balance
  • Children can find shapes, lines, textures, colors and patterns in pictures of buildings
  • School children can make rubbings of different building materials
  • Older children can make bridges and learn about spans and load-bearing structures
  • “Sidewalk superintendents” can learn a lot by visiting a construction site
  • Similarly, students can visit an historic house, an architect’s or contractor’s office

Leal School teachers Colleen Brodie and Nancy Coombs published two books with their classes: Children, Architecture, and History: A Child’s Walking Tour Guide of Urbana (1989-90) and then A Child’s Guide of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1990-91). They include drawings and information about buildings on campus and in Urbana.

Nowadays there are a great many more books available (and easily searchable!), but here are some of the ones I collected, obviously in no particular order:

Forrest Wilson, What It Feels Like to be a Building (1995), ages 4-8

Wilson, The Joy of Building: Restoring the Connection between Builder and Architect (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, 1979), older kids

Most of David Macaulay’s books http://www.davidmacaulay.com/

Fagg, Sington, How They Built Long Ago

MacGregor, Skyscrapers: A Project Book

Goldreich, What Can She Be? An Architect

Haldane, Faces on Places: About Gargoyles

Balthasar Korab, Archabet: An Architectural Alphabet Postcard Book (Preservation Press, 1992)

Diane Madex, Architects Make Zigzags: Looking at Architecture from A to Z (Wiley, 1986)

Katharine Jones Carter, Houses (1982)

Harriet Langsam Sobol, Pete’s House (1978)

Cobb/Strejan, Skyscraper Going Up

Carter Harman, A Skyscraper Goes Up

Ingoglia, The Big Book of Real Skyscrapers

Jane D’Alelio, I Know that Building: Discovering Architecture with Activities and Games (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1989)

Paolo Donati(illus) and Philip Wilkinson, Amazing Buildings (Dorling Kindersley, 1993)

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-sections (Knopf, 1992)

The Center for Children’s Books, one of the research centers at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois, has many resources available to help expand these ideas.

April 11, 2009

The Blogosphere

I went to a brownbag talk by historian Ray Fouche this past week. He commented that he’d like to find more ways to communicate with “everyday folks,” rather than addressing academics all the time. So I asked him if he blogged. Then I inwardly laughed at myself, because I blog, but I don’t do it in order to “communicate with everyday folks” or many people at all. There are so many fascinating blogs out there that I don’t read, even occasionally. I can barely find time to write here; I think about blogging more than I do it. This blog serves as a sort of placeholder for thoughts that I might want to develop further, but I’d like it to be something more than that. Ray’s discussion about his own personal shift in the last year, prompted me to reflect on my changing habits as well: he now reads online rather than printing out documents; he now collaborates more online with other scholars; he feels less proprietary of his intellectual property. Many historians have been superceded by Wikipedia, he noted, and amateur historians or folks who have a deep expertise in one technology (like railroads) have erased a lot of academic “authority.”

As for my own changing habits: I edit online almost exclusively; I never use a pen and paper to write longhand if I can avoid it; and a lot of initial drafts of ideas end up in email “conversations” that have unrelated subject lines! Still, I am very attached to books and articles: somehow e-journals and wikis are uninviting to me because they force me to read or write onscreen and I spend hours and hours in front of a screen everyday already. I want to take a book and lie on the couch. I want to see what I write in published, hard copy. Blog rolls, wiki updates, and digital bookmarks–there is too much e-information out there for me to absorb during screentime. There’s a kind of materiality I need.  I find highlighters, sticky notes, marginal comments, and colorful bookmarks very satisfying. Indeed, some part of myself finds print, or stone, or steel, or clay as validating and real. Virtuality is unembodied and ultimately ephemeral.

Ray also talked about using binaries–what he calls analog-digital synergies–to explore interstitial spaces. In these spaces, we can query how we invest ourselves in technologies, in terms of our identities and cultures. Ray said that technological change is also a crisis of identity. Clearly, giving up books would be a crisis for my identity, in so many ways. I’m sure there are hybrid ways of being; the whole point of binary oppositions is to bust them. Books AND blogs, not books OR blogs.

February 27, 2009

Digital Stigmergic Collaboration

I like the word “stigmergy,” which according to Wikipedia means “a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.”
Now when we talk about the “emerging online practices [that] enable the extreme scaling seen in mass collaborative projects such as Wikipedia.org” that Mark Elliott wrote his dissertation about, we are starting to look at the new directions in the humanities that was the subject of a recent symposium at the University of Illinois. We heard John Unsworth talk about “The Value of Digitization for Libraries and Humanities Scholarship.” He outlined issues related to digital surrogates, and we discussed the two-way (at least) visibility of cultural heritage, in terms of audience and access. There were a number of interesting projects that John mentioned in passing that relate to stigmergy in one way or another: the InterPARES Project, The International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems, now in its third phase; the Open Content Alliance; Educause.

I have a long way to go to really wrap my head around text mining, Zotero scraping of a database, and so on. My immediate response to ways to preserve and highlight “cultural infrastructure” is that it may be a response to the recent and recurrent call for making the humanities count for something. Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (February 25, 2009) wrote “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” that “traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation….Questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.” She quoted Richard M. Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education: “We’ve created a disjuncton between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.” Rather than ONLY emphasizing the “practical and economic value” of the humanities, however, which in the short term is hard to gauge imho, I think digital humanities in stigmergic collaboration could go a long way to address a range of human needs, including learning across differences.