CHARLESTON — For many adults, the thought of building a structure is intimidating and complex, but for 600 elementary students from schools with Richland County District Two it’s something they’ve already accomplished.

In September and October, fourth- and fifth-graders from 16 schools near Columbia traveled to the Clemson Design Center in Charleston (CDC.C) to tour the facility and build a room of their own. Ray Huff, associate architecture professor and director of the CDC.C., and senior architecture lecturer David Pastre worked with the visiting students, parents and teachers in groups of 50 during one of three, three day sessions.

The students are all part of Richland County School District Two’s ALERT program, a one-day-a-week pullout program that provides active learning experiences on a two-year cycle for gifted and talented students. During the first year, students study architecture and sustainability and the second year, students learn about engineering through research units.

“Students can sometimes perceive learning as an isolated endeavor, reserved only for experiences within the four walls of a school; community programs, such as the architecture experience provided by the Clemson Design Center, can, in effect, remove the ceilings of those otherwise assumed boundaries,” said Jeanne Blackburn, a fourth-grade ALERT teacher at Behel-Hanberry Elementary.

One of the primary goals of Richland County District Two’s ALERT program is to make college palpable and attainable. By partnering with institutions, students have the opportunity to see first-hand what college programs look like and, more specifically, get a glimpse into the academic life of college students. District Two has had a partnership with The Citadel for their engineering and research unit for more than a decade.

“When our team began evaluating field study plans this past spring for the current school year, we discussed the possibility of establishing a partnership with a university for the architecture unit, similar to the one we have had with The Citadel,” said Jeanne Blackburn. “A few Google searches later, we discovered the Clemson Design Center in Charleston and promptly reached out. We met Ray and David and were elated to see how well Clemson’s program fit with the ALERT curriculum.”

“I thought Clemson was so much fun,” said Jasmyn, a fifth-grader at Forest Lake Elementary School (pictured above in pink). “When I saw the college students’ work on our tour, I wanted to make my own blueprints and sketches! I was inspired to be an architect myself.”
Image Credit: Richland County Schools District Two

The CDC.C. is involved in multiple community endeavors, but this is the first time they have taken on a partnership of this size with elementary school students.

“My first instinct was that we didn’t have a program in place for kids that age,” said Huff. “But after our team talked about it, we realized we had to do this and that it would be an amazing opportunity to reach a gifted and diverse collective of students.”

Each session started with a tour of Charleston’s Old Cigar Factory where the CDC.C. is located. Students learned about the world of architecture as they walked through the halls, viewed Clemson undergraduate and graduate students’ architectural drawings on the walls and watched them learn in the studio environment.

To make the most of their visit, Huff and Pastre knew the students needed to have a hands-on approach to learning, an approach they use for their own architecture students. They decided they would build a room using the Clemson’s patent-pending sim[PLY] Framing System.

Dan Harding, an associate architecture professor and director of the Community Research and Design Center, has played a pivotal role in the development of sim[PLY] when it was originally developed in 2015. The construction method uses an interlocking tab-and-slot connection system. Structures come together much like a 3-D puzzle using no nails, just steel zip ties and some screws.

“We didn’t originally create sim[PLY] with elementary school students in mind, but we did create it so that it would be versatile – it can be used by people of all ages and for structures of all kinds. It doesn’t isolate or segregate who works on it when or where, it’s always available,” said Harding.

After the tour, students began to build their own 7-foot X 7-foot structure. For 90 minutes, two teams of 25 constructed a room while being introduced to basic building systems, and ideas of enclosure, space, structure and surface.

“The hands-on building activity provided students with an opportunity to evaluate the way design, engineering and teamwork is required to complete a project. It was amazing for me, as a parent, to see a project concept, its creation and implementation all within a couple of hours. What an awesome experience for gifted and talented kids,” said one parent from Bethel-Hanberry Elementary.

Learning is accomplished many different ways and by providing a hands-on experience, Richland County School District Two’s students can attach real-world purpose to learning previously attained in the classroom and they can begin to imagine themselves as contributing members in the community one day.

“At the end of each session, they were all so excited and pleased with themselves. Not only did they build something but they learned the basics of architecture – an assemblage of rooms, systems, tectonics, enclosures – and the importance of working collaboratively,” said Huff. “For us, the fun part was knowing that we gave them a memorable experience that will impact their conception of what architecture is for the rest of their lives and we look forward to having them back and working with other school districts in the future.”