Recently, I was invited by a friend to speak to two eighth grade math classes about the field of landscape architecture. DC Prep’s Edgewood Middle School Campus was adding a new element to their May curriculum by creating a ‘Career Month’ with the option for various professionals to come in and speak to the students. I must say, I have done my fair share of presentations (including teaching a high school magnet program in Fort Lauderdale, FL about landscape architecture), but I had never tackled going back into the halls of a middle school to speak to students about my career.
Thinking back…when I was in eighth grade, I wasn’t even close to thinking about what career I was interested in pursuing. Heck, there were far too many other things happening in my life during that time that kept me off course. But times have changed! My visit to DC Prep was an eye-opening experience that left me full of gratitude for what I was able to do for these students and inspiration for the future our field as landscape architects.
We are continuously stating that we lack a certain diversity within our field. Environmental justice is becoming a key term in the everyday life of design, yet we fail to reach out to the future students who could become leaders in making this change. I recently read an article entitled DC Parks Intends to Beat Gentrification Where Others Have Failed. I found it intriguing for many reasons. Being a DC resident, I know how transformative (in good ways and bad) a design competition that has been dubbed “the High Line on the Anacostia” could be, but I was most interested in the project’s emphasis on creating ‘do good’ design within our city. The idea that we could include the local community in the design process more dynamically is fantastic, but also having landscape architects who truly understand the displacement that these types of developments have caused in the past could change the course of both how we design and how we view and assess designs.
With help from colleagues at ASLA, I was able to create a cohesive presentation that included various images of parks around Washington, DC, details to answer the unavoidable question of “what is landscape architecture,” and information on the education and career track from landscape architecture student to professional. To my surprise, the students were very responsive – even raising their hands to give the name of a specific park or Metro stop near the parks shown in the presentation. One of the slides displayed an image of the Chicago Bean and they were quick to acknowledge that landscape architects worked on this park in Chicago. Apparently, TV and Internet have come a long way in educating our students!
A small design exercise was given at the end of the presentation to get the student’s creative juices flowing. The site was a familiar parking lot adjacent to the middle school. The students were to create a green, fun, and safe park for the faculty and students attending the surrounding schools and LVA Library. Needless to say, there were some creative responses – including a statue of Beyoncé in a chocolate fountain, a series of tree houses holding a variety of uses (such as a library, Chipotle, and McDonalds), and even a community garden with a manmade river to collect storm runoff for watering the plants.
The students’ questions were very thorough and thoughtful—they were actually interested and invested in what I was saying. Maybe I wasn’t giving middle school students enough credit before visiting DC Prep, but I was impressed. This is when I realized that this is a key moment in a student’s life, and that we must reach out and be advocates and educators for the profession. Allison Lashley, a teacher at DC Prep, stated, “All students benefit from exposure to the real-world applications of what they are learning in school. Hearing from professionals who use the skills (or extensions of a skill) in their day-to-day work make the learning more relevant for the student…I think the ideal time to reach out to students is between grades 7 and 9 because so many of their opportunities for their education are determined by their school performance during these years.”
Middle school is dramatically changing as students mature more rapidly and start thinking about the future earlier – especially in urban settings. This is a time when students build their foundations for higher learning and can focus on specific courses needed in both high school and college.
Taking the opportunity to create a career discovery program or even just presenting to students locally should be something that is on every landscape architect’s radar. We get consumed in our daily chores and forget to reach out to the future of our field – the students. There are countless ways to get involved, including community service projects, career fairs, and charrettes, but sometimes simply reaching out to a local school can make the biggest impact. Even if you’re unsure where these endeavors may lead the future of landscape architecture, it is a gratifying experience to speak with the students through imagery and experience. They were intrigued by the work that we do as landscape architects and left me with a feeling of assurance, knowing that I hold no regrets after that one day as an undergraduate when I made the decision to switch my major to landscape architecture.
by Shawn M. Balon, PLA, ASLA, Professional Practice Manager at ASLA