June 2021: Wide Angle

New Summer Architecture Program Provides Unique Experience for Local High School Students

This summer, a cohort of high school students from the Pittsburgh region will gain hands-on experience in architecture on the Pittsburgh campus. During the four-week program, students will meet daily to take coursework, visit architectural sites, meet local architects, interact with students in Pitt’s Architectural Studies Program and work on design projects.

For Drew Armstrong, director of Architectural Studies in the Dietrich School, creating a summer program for local high school students is the next step in building out the program and engaging with the larger design community in Western Pennsylvania. Pitt currently offers a pre-professional BS in architecture, a liberal arts BA in architectural studies, and a minor in architecture-design, which have opened opportunities for all Pitt undergraduates to pursue coursework in architecture. Over the past 15 years, the program has sent more than 150 students to graduate schools for architecture and related fields at 50 different universities in the United States and beyond.

“In the past decade, we have established strong relationships with the Swanson School of Engineering and the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University,” said Armstrong. “Our goal is to position students for success, and we want to capture more students in high school who are thinking of pursuing careers in architecture. Building a diverse and inclusive program is a key priority; we want high school students to know that we’re here and provide them with foundational skills and insights that will help them access the university and see themselves as future professionals.” Inspired by the Investing Now program in the Swanson School of Engineering, Armstrong collaborated with John Sebastian, director of the McKamish Construction Management Program, to develop the proposal to create the summer Experiencing Architecture program that will launch in July 2021.

“We hope that students that participate in this program, ultimately, study architecture at Pitt, but it's really about exposure, and we want students to be armed with the most information and tools that they can be as they make decisions about their future,” said Sara Pettit, AIA, coordinator and lead instructor for the program. Pettit has extensive experience working professionally as an architect and teaching high school students within the ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Mentorship Program in New Haven, CT, and Philadelphia, PA.

While similar programs for high school students are available at many institutions, they are often expensive or exclusive, thus presenting barriers to access, particularly for students from underrepresented groups and those who experience socioeconomic adversity.

“The architectural profession has a big, big problem with diversity,” said Pettit. “And despite attention to it, it hasn't made good strides over the past decades. When you look back at the data, minorities, and particularly minority women, are hugely underrepresented in the field. We have not made the strides that we need to, and we're lagging behind.”

To combat this disparity, Armstrong and Sebastian applied for a seed grant from the Office of the Chancellor to create the summer program, which will be offered free of charge in July 2021 and in July 2022.

Students who are accepted into the program will experience various facets of architecture coursework and professional practice.

“I'll be the lead instructor, but we'll also have current Architectural Studies majors serving as program assistants,” said Pettit. “It's a fabulous way for high schoolers to meet current students and learn firsthand what it's like.”

Students will visit construction sites and will do walking tours with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, and there will be a day-long field trip to Fallingwater, the famous Laurel Highlands house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Students will also complete a design project, which will “track like a studio project in college,” said Pettit. “At the end of it, they'll walk away with a piece that they can have for their own portfolios for the future. Hopefully, they’ll gain a good sense of what it's like to study architecture at Pitt, and, ultimately apply.”

As a professional architect herself, Pettit wants to expose students to a genuine experience of architecture study and practice.

“What I would like to do with the students is expose them to the more academic side—why architecture is important, and the community and cultural impacts that architecture can have, both positive and negative. But, also, from the professional side, expose them to different practices in Pittsburgh that are already engaged in a lot of community work or local work, and let them see firsthand how different studios of different sizes operate, what different types of practices focus on such as health care, residential, etc. and expose them to the two sides of the coin,” explained Pettit. “In academia, you tend to experience the academic side, and then you are thrust into the professional realm when you graduate. This exposes them to both and connects them with professionals of various backgrounds.”

This program provides additional avenues for Pitt to engage with the greater Pittsburgh community.

“We're trying to recruit students that are from the area and hopefully would stay in the area,” Pettit said. “Often, students who study at Pitt are from Pittsburgh but end up working elsewhere. By fostering those local connections, we hope that we can build a pipeline of students from diverse backgrounds that return to Pittsburgh and work here and help address that larger diversity issue in the field.”

Ultimately, Pettit hopes, students will come away from the program having had valuable exposure to a rewarding career.

“It's exposure to a potential career path that's really satisfying, that's creative. And they can do important things for communities. I hope that it also teaches them if architecture isn't the route they choose, that's okay. If it gets students to Pitt’s campus and exposes them to the opportunities and the world-class institution right in their backyard, that's great, too. I hope that they have a little exposure, confidence, excitement, and understand some of the opportunities that are out there whenever you give things a shot and try things out.”

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