The idea started on a beach in Mexico. A dozen school-age children were scattered along the sand, darting between the waves and collecting seashells in the tails of their shirts. But only certain shells made the cut, and those that didn’t meet a child’s criteria of beauty, symmetry and color, were tossed back into the sea.
“I realized ‘Oh wow, these children are making critical aesthetic judgements about the environment.’ Even though no one ever taught them how to do that.” - Anne Taylor, UNM School of Architecture and Planning
That sparked an idea in Anne Taylor’s mind, which has grown into a blazing 50-year career of researching, designing and creating learning environments that foster innovation and intrigue at schools across the United States and the world.
Taylor’s legacy of scholarship and innovation is one of the reasons she was chosen to receive the 2019 Collaborative Achievement Award by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The award recognizes persons who work with those outside the profession to improve the spaces where people live and work.
As a UNM Architecture and Planning Distinguished and Regents Professor Emerita, Taylor did just that by creating a curriculum, titled “Architecture and Children.” It interweaves basic concepts of math, science, engineering, technology and arts into a hands-on learning processes with design and architecture as the nucleus.
“When I was observing and evaluating teachers and their classrooms as part of my dissertation, classrooms were horrible. They are teacher-centric. Directions come from the teachers, students complete workbooks,” Taylor said.
50 years later, she says classrooms haven’t changed much – but her research shows they need to.
Taylor believes the power of education should be given back to children. She says the current education system is broken, and the problem is partially rooted in overcrowded, teacher-centric classrooms that have no aesthetic, engaging way to teach students basic concepts. In her curriculum, she advises creating interactive learning environments where kids can both play and learnand create and problem solve in a studio like atmosphere.
“Where is there a place in the classroom where kids can be creative? Where is there any display of their artwork or their creative work? Where is there a display of their cultural history or an artifact that promotes cultural and aesthetic knowledge,” asked Taylor.
These are the criteria she looks for when evaluating classrooms, and the framework she is using to advocate for change. Taylor’s nonprofit organization, School Zone Institute, is teaming up with the UNM School of Architecture and Planning (SA&P) to bring creativity and exploration back to the classroom. They are basing their plan on classroom work Taylor did while pursuing her doctorate, including building classrooms with geometric climbing equipment, soft spaces, and desks that come down from the ceiling on a pully system via a gear ration. While in that environment, she says, children can’t help but learn about leveraging weights, sliding momentum, the advantages of a pully system (physics) and that a classroom door swing can illustrate the geometry of 90 or 180 degrees (math).
“The locus of imagination should be in children’s minds,” she says.
The pilot program started at Eubank and Mark Twain Elementary Schools in 2013 and 2016 respectively. The three-year programs at each school was a partnership with AIA Albuquerque and was implemented in grades two-five. Now that it is in its final year, Taylor is hoping momentum from UNM can keep it growing.
“We’re looking at what the next version of this project will be,” said John Quale, chair and professor of Architecture at UNM. “That includes possible funding options and ways we can make it a sustainable program in New Mexico schools.
Taylor is also advocating teachers at the UNM College of Education (COE) be taught her curriculum, which has been implemented in schools in eight states and five countries. She, SA&P, and COE are collaborating and generating ideas about summer camps, with an emphasis on design. These STEM-oriented design education workshops are already being planned for summer 2019, with hopes that they’ll continue into the future.
“These learning environments are a way to bring students, architects, teachers and volunteers together in an innovative way – which can open doors and engage children’s imaginations. Creative children are our future,” Taylor concluded.