School’s Out! Architectural Education Going Forward in Our New Normal

July 16, 2020

By: Dan Davis, AIA, LEED AP

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With courses complete and grades entered, June marked the virtual close of the 2020 spring semester.  Like many other professors, I’m settling into summer after coaching and witnessing students emerge amidst a global pandemic. Considering how challenging this time has been for many of us, integrating and balancing our professional and personal lives, I imagine that students may have found this the most challenging time of their educational career.

When Covid hit I was instructing a studio of first year architectural design students and also managing a thesis program for graduate MAarch students, poised and eager to launch their careers. Together we embarked on an unprecedented journey. As we began to navigate through the new normal, students echoed their concerns. Uncertainty. Staying motivated. Folding in new virtual technologies while juggling an already demanding workload. All understandable. It made for an interesting ride, to say the least.

To round out the year, my first year students were asked to design a shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Their designs needed to be mindful of building codes and accessibility standards. My thesis students’ project was based on the theory and design of their own project, a 40,000 to 60,000-SF mixed use facility. I scrutinized and graded a number of combinations that included anything from breweries to science laboratories to transit hubs. Reflecting on the intent and quality of their final projects, I can say the majority of my students managed to keep it together and to generate commendable work.

After digesting all that transpired in these last few months, I sit here reflecting on successes and opportunities. Regardless of how we may feel about the pace of life and school re-openings, here are some takeaways and reminders about virtual architectural teaching and learning as we continue our journey into a new normal:

1. There’s always room for diversity in the classroom

I’ve always found it beneficial to invite leading designers and end users to our classroom to share their knowledge and unique insights. Despite some of the initial challenges for everyone to implement virtual technologies, I made virtual guest lecturers a priority and here’s why. Their range of backgrounds, values, and beliefs not only complemented my syllabus, but bolsters student creativity. In an increasingly fragmented society, a student’s exposure and ability to connect with a range of experiences and abilities is invaluable. Whether classes are in person in the classroom or online, we can encourage diversity in a multitude of ways. It improves critical thinking and encourages students to think differently. Their exploration and incorporation of differences not only enrich themselves, but their designs of our built environment.

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Dinea rendering.jpg
Alex pic.jpg

2. Distance learning has its place

As educational facilities create their playbooks for re-opening safely, we’re hearing more and more about learning experiences that extend beyond the traditional classroom setting. Mindful of many learning styles and preferences, especially now with online learning, it’s important to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous instruction occurs when students and teachers interact in real-time, while asynchronous instruction occurs when interactions are at different times, such as when learning takes place via video. My experience so far was with the synchronous style. I encouraged all cameras to be engaged so nobody felt isolated and maintained an interactive vibe. Because architectural students are visual by nature, this interactive and conversational approach helped tremendously. Still, I would not endorse four to six years of distance learning. I don’t want the magic of in-studio architecture education to disappear. Therefore, I believe a hybrid of in-classroom and distance learning could be valuable. Time away from the classroom helped many of my students become more disciplined, self-motivated, and independent thinkers. I saw much clarity and conciseness in their work this last semester. Perhaps a good model with the best value going forward would be two thirds of time spent in the studio and one third spent learning through synchronous instruction.

3. Architectural design students are worthy of workplace experiences

Applied learning is a key part of the college experience for all students. As we continue to battle the Covid Pandemic and contemplate returning to our workplaces, I sense some industry reluctance about engaging architecture students for workplace experiences. While training and time spent with student staff may look and feel different, I believe students and professionals alike have proven how resilient and agile they are, ready to embrace the technologies that bring us together. Architecture students need to integrate classroom knowledge and theory. They value and thrive with real life experiences, exposure, and networks to supplement their educational career. I’ve seen first-hand the quality of work they can provide, even during a time of uncertainty and unique challenges. In the coming weeks and months, I encourage my industry colleagues to keep in mind how mutually advantageous employer-student staff relationships are. They are investments of time that pay back in dividends. Remember, our economy is changing daily, and with it, the talents, skills, and experience needed to be a part of this growth cycle.

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University of Hartford and QA+M’s emerging professional Dinea Frasca collaborated with members of the studio to spearhead the creation of this rendering.

At far left QA+M’s student staffer Alexander Toth, driving force on a model for a school project, displays his work with coworkers. Alex is a student at the University of Hartford.


QA+M’s Dan Davis, AIA, LEED AP and Registered Interior Designer is a senior design architect with 30+ years of experience and is also a tenured professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford’s College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture. He is the winner of several prestigious design awards and author of books, articles, and professional and academic papers and journals. When Dan isn’t designing or instructing about design he enjoys furniture making and reading non-fiction. And thanks to the quarantine, Dan is now pursuing his new interests in gardening and cooking.