STEM, à la Landscape Architecture

by Arnaldo D. Cardona, ASLA

Planting seedlings
image: Sandie Clarke on Unsplash

To learn more about career discovery, register now for Dream Big with Design later this month, ASLA’s inaugural virtual showcase of landscape architecture and PreK-12 design learning, with fun sessions and resources for students, as well as for PreK-12 educators, ASLA members, and other design professionals seeking to introduce students to the profession. There’s also a pre-Dream Big webinar happening on Friday, September 17—Hollywood’s Backlot Urbanism: A Cinematographic Pattern Language for Landscape Architecture, presented by Chip Sullivan, FASLA.

From June 28 to August 6, 2021, I had the opportunity to be an instructor in a summer program at elementary schools in Henrico County and Richmond, Virginia. Even though my priority at the time was working on my book, I accepted the challenge as a way to test how lessons on landscape architecture concepts can be integrated when implementing STEM activities.

I used lessons that I created and taught during my career as an educator for over 30 years at New York City public schools, but now with an added STEM approach. Although I knew that I was going to integrate concepts from landscape architecture and 3D design, I decided not to include the phrase “landscape architecture” in the program title because it can sound like complex and intimidating work for elementary school children. For this reason, I selected lessons that would help students develop design skills about the outdoor and built environment using the word “environment” as a more inclusive term, because I wanted to be perceived just as the “STEM teacher.”

But what is STEM? Many people know it as the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; however, I agree with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)’s description of it as “an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real world lessons as students apply these disciplines in contexts that make connections between school, community, work and the global enterprise enabling students to compete in the new economy.” Therefore, I used this definition as a guide when designing each lesson for this summer program.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, STEM will help prepare future generations to best handle our world’s biggest problems.

As a licensed art teacher, I made sure to also add an art component to the programs so I could turn STEM into STEAM.

By the conclusion of the summer program, I had made some discoveries as an educator that I would love to share. I witnessed how students were able to:

  • Identify concepts that show how the outdoor environment can be designed.
  • Understand that outdoor spaces are as important as indoor spaces.
  • Apply what they know or like when engaged in activities about outdoor spaces and the built environment.
  • Analyze the environmental factors that affect natural and man-made spaces.
  • Evaluate how a successful outdoor space should look.
  • Create their own outdoor and built spaces at a smaller scale.
  • Understand that the critical thinking process is sequential.

Through several design exercises that used real-life situations, students turned from average learners into critical thinkers. Another discovery working in this STEM program and throughout my life as an educator at the college and K-12 level is that landscape architecture can be see as an ideal subject to design STEM and interdisciplinary learning experiences. Last but not least, in these days in which professional organizations are promoting diversity and inclusion, I am glad to say that the student population in this programs was 100% minorities and that they were exposed to non-traditional learning experiences.

STEM should not be viewed as limited to the disciplines in its acronym but as all of the skills students will develop. STEM should not be judged solely by its products but also by its processes. STEM should be studied as a whole instead of as the sum of its parts. As a landscape architect, artist, and educator, I have designed and developed many interdisciplinary curricula and STEM activities and I hope others will recognize that landscape architecture can be seen as the ideal STEM discipline among all STEM professions. If asked what makes landscape architecture a STEM profession, my answer would be that landscape architecture not only involves disciplines related to the built environment but it comprises the natural environment (the life sciences, ecology, and more) as well, making it the most interdisciplinary of all STEM professions. Let’s keep working for landscape architecture to be recognized as a STEM discipline.

For more about ASLA’s career discovery initiatives, please visit asla.org/become.aspx and explore the ASLA Career Discovery and Diversity and Tools for PreK-12 Teachers webpages.

Arnaldo D. Cardona, ASLA, is a member of the ASLA’s Committee on Education and chair of the subcommittee on K-12 Education. Through this article he hopes to motivate other ASLA members to become advocates for the issues of career discovery, K-12 education, and community service. He believes that if ASLA members become more proactive and collaborate closely with ASLA’s Career Discovery initiatives, they will be creating the clients of the future and will guarantee colleges and universities the sustainability of their academic offerings.

One thought on “STEM, à la Landscape Architecture

  1. Jason Medeiros September 9, 2021 / 3:10 pm

    This is fantastic Arnaldo! I live and work in Seattle, WA as a science educator and design consultant on outdoor learning projects. One of the strongest STEM/Design curricula I’ve come across was developed through a partnership between Seattle Public Utilities and IslandWood (a local environmental ed. center). They’ve put together a unit called ‘Community Waters’ that walks 2-4th graders through the science of green stormwater management and has them design solutions to real problems in their neighborhoods. https://communitywaters.org.

    I borrowed heavily from this myself this last summer, teaching a 6 week outdoor Environmental Science and Design class with 45 5th graders. Adding design and neighborhood analysis creates amazing buy-in from students, making everyone just want to learn more science! Check out one of their projects here: https://youtu.be/g88zgWssaDs

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