In August 2018 the Charlotte chapter of American Institute of Architects (AIA) sought volunteers to participate in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) + AIA Design Thinking Challenge. The Challenge was aimed at high school students with an interest in design who were currently enrolled in CMS architectural/drafting courses.

The general purpose of this school district initiative was to provide students with hands-on, work-based, learning experiences through engagement with professional architects in a classroom setting. Teachers asked the architects to direct their lessons towards the fundamentals of design in order to lay a foundation for students to develop their own critical thinking skills, and to integrate the tools used by architects and other professions, such as AutoCAD® and Revit®.

This opportunity to inspire and encourage high school students caught the attention of ZAPATA’s architects—five of whom, ranging from architect intern to senior architect, signed up for the Challenge. They are Kameron Freeman, Cecilia Guardia, Fernando Lopez, Regina Porter-Jordan, and Billy Stanfield.

The ZAPATA architects were divided into three groups and assigned to three of the eight high schools participating in the semester-long program. The architects worked with representatives from AIA and CMS teachers to develop work plans and goals, then customized them to fit the experience level of the students.

Mallard Creek High School (MCHS):
Billy and Regina were assigned to the MCHS architecture II drafting class with students who already had drafting experience and were now interested in obtaining Revit® certification. (Revit® is an industry standard Building Information Modeling program.)

The duo began with an overview of architecture through design principles, concepts, and fundamentals. Next they presented students with a Design Thinking Challenge: Design an urban townhome development with ADA-accessible units with three bedrooms and a private courtyard, and include a site constraint, e.g., fire-fighting ingress or a detached garage. The students were divided into four teams. Each team provided designs for one quadrant of the multi-unit development, and together they worked towards a cohesive final design.

Through participation in the Challenge, students were able to achieve certain milestones in their quest to obtain Revit® certification, such as learning how to produce dimensioned, furnished and detailed drawings, 3D walkthroughs and renderings, to name a few.

Billy and Regina stand with the engineering/drafting teacher and his proud students, 18 of whom received Revit® User Certification.











“It is a tremendous example of industry-education partnership effectiveness. . . . the kids were inspired by your challenge and enabled by the insight and resources you kindly provided. With enthusiasm they learned a tremendous amount of knowledge and skills in a relatively short time. —Engineering/drafting teacher, MCHS

Providence High School (PHS):

On their first day at PHS, Cecilia and Kameron arrived at the introductory drafting class to assist freshman and sophomore students with an ongoing painting assignment. It was a good opportunity to critique their work and teach the students about design elements such as light/dark and highlights/shadows, along with color matching and brush techniques.

During a subsequent session, Cecilia and Kameron gave a presentation on design principles. They explained basic design concepts; how to recognize elements of design everywhere in life, from man-made to nature; and how design skills are integral to many careers—not just architecture.

Next came the Challenge—a design charrette. The students were instructed to apply the design principles they had learned using a shoebox as the medium. They focused on modeling as a design process to convey their individual design ideas while transforming a shoebox into an imagined inhabitable space and showcasing an architectural design principle they wanted to explore like scale/proportion, form, balance, rhythm and movement. This assignment challenged the young drafting students in their understanding of design.

PHS students explore architectural design principles with their deconstructed shoeboxes.










Kameron commented, “Our involvement began outside of the classroom. We met with the organizers (both CMS and AIA representatives), high school teachers, and other volunteers to develop a program for CMS High Schools that results in early exposure to architecture education, as well as students becoming certified AutoCAD® and Revit® users upon completion.”

Ardrey Kell High School (AKHS):

Fernando teamed with Paul, an architect from a local firm—and together they shared their experiences as architects looking at career paths and architecture in general, as a career choice for the students.

“When students are exposed to real world information from design and construction professionals, they become better equipped to make informed decisions that can potentially impact their career paths,” said Fernando.

Students in the level II architecture class were exposed to a variety of architectural and engineering concepts through the study and observation of a typical set of construction documents, which were drawings of their high school.

The Challenge was to study the drawings to understand how information is referenced throughout the construction documents for each of the disciplines (civil, mechanical, structural, architectural, and fire protection); and examine components and areas within the actual building. For example, the students explored floor plans, elevations, details and schedules. They learned to differentiate between a CMU and a stud wall, and an HVAC diffuser and a return grill. Concepts like egress paths and travel distances were studied in the life safety plans; and parking areas, sidewalks, and storm sewer layouts were part of the civil drawings review.

This exercise helped them to better understand the process—from drawings (digital and paper) to physical components—and how to use tools like Revit® to develop the end results. In all likelihood, these AKHS architecture students will receive Revit® User certification when they complete the course.

Based upon student and teacher feedback, the five ZAPATA architects involved with the CMS + AIA Design Thinking Challenge unanimously agreed the program was a success. ZAPATA’s architects shared hands-on experiences, and they educated the students about the design process and the importance of critical thinking and decision-making skills that are competencies for becoming an architect. The CMS students got a glimpse into what their future careers could look like—and picked up a few transferrable skills in the process!