Changing minds, opening doors to architecture

- June 6, 2019

Students take on their own architecture projects as part of Experiences in Architecture. (Nick Pearce photos)
Students take on their own architecture projects as part of Experiences in Architecture. (Nick Pearce photos)

Dal’s School of Architecture is constructing new perspectives for African Nova Scotian high school students.

“Before, I used to think that architecture was just drawing buildings and houses,” says grade 9 high school student Nyisha Clayton (left), one of the attendees at the Experiences in Architecture program. “But now I know that you can actually do anything really.”

Nyisha isn’t alone in thinking architecture is simply planning buildings — it’s fairly common for students to initially misunderstand what’s involved when studying the discipline.

“The idea is that you have to let them know, ‘This is what we do as architects,’” says James Forren, assistant professor in the School of Architecture and champion for the Experiences program. “It’s not necessarily all about math, science and all these other myths you might have. When I was a student at their age, I didn’t know that this was something that I could do, that this could be school.”

Overnight experience

The initiative includes two days of architecture workshops aimed at getting African Nova Scotia high school students interested in the profession, as well as an overnight stay at the campus to give them the full university experience.

“These kids typically live at home, they have their schooling from 9-3 and then after-school activities,” says Morgan Kerber, an Architecture TA as well as program assistant. “This is immersive: you’re living in a dorm. You have a sense of responsibility, which is not normally given at this age, which I think is really cool.”

The workshops took place from May 16-17 and were made possible by a partnership between the Business is Jammin’, the youth initiative of the Black Business Initiative, and the School of Architecture. It was also sponsored by the Architects Association of New Brunswick.

“The goal really is to show them what that feels like early on, so when they do get to post-secondary, they don’t feel displaced,” says Ashley Hill, the youth program coordinator for Business is Jammin’. “They feel a sense of comfort, that ‘I’ve done this before. I can manage. I can find my way around.’”

A need for representation

Hill says the field of architecture is in great need of representation in the African Nova Scotian community, and that this initiative helps address that.

“The whole idea around the experience is to introduce African Nova Scotia youth to career opportunities for specific fields of study where we see less diversity,” says Hill. “The two Black [Dal] students that are helping here today are two of only a handful that are in the architect program at Dalhousie, so you can see the percentage.”

“When I speak to TAs and students currently in the program about their experiences, as visible minorities I’m getting a window into their experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Prof. Forren. “It highlights the work we have to do as a profession to change that landscape. It’s not an organic condition. Initiatives like this are critical to reframing the structural problems of the discipline.”

Currently in its second year, the introductory program is already changing student’s minds about architecture. When asked if she would pursue architecture as a career choice, Nyisha said she was skeptical prior to attending the program, but now says: “I could definitely see myself doing it now.”

Constructing the future

Changes in perspective like Nyisha’s aren’t uncommon once students undergo the two days according to Hill.

“I don’t think that their idea of architecture has been shattered, I think they had no idea what architecture was until they came to this initiative. They had a concept of buildings and blueprints and it opened their minds to other possibilities. Now their considering ‘Oh, why is lighting like this?’ or ‘Why are buildings made this way.’ They’re curious about everything now.

“Our goal isn’t to say ‘this is why you should be an architect,’ our goal is to spark interest and get them to think from a different perspective and I think we’ve accomplished that.


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