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“Once I’m an Internationally-Renowned Architect, When Am I Ever Going to Use This Stuff?": Architectural Information Literacy Instruction Based on Real World Problems

May 5, 2014

Barbara Opar and Barret Havens, column editors
Article submitted by Barret Havens, Assistant Professor and Outreach Librarian, Woodbury University


As an architecture librarian I know that the research concepts and techniques that we convey to students are crucial to their success. However, teaching can still be a tough sell for many of us. As members of the Google generation, many students have trouble understanding why the resources they need are only obtainable through a multi-step process and why many of those resources are available solely in print. This makes teaching the architecture-specific information literacy course that I teach at Woodbury University a challenge. In addition to being entertaining enough to keep students who have just pulled all-nighters in the studio from sleeping with their eyes open--an art which architecture students seem to have mastered—I must relate each and every exercise and assignment to the design process in order to stave off, by answering continually, the question that students often ponder in their non-studio courses: “once I’m an internationally-renowned architect, when am I ever going to use this stuff?”

My approach to resolving this conundrum has been to present information as the foundation and inspiration for design. Along those lines, two semesters ago, I began structuring my course around the same issue that triggers the need for design: a real-world problem. Throughout the semester, students seek out, evaluate, and compile information resources in a variety of formats that revolve around the challenge of designing the most effective temporary shelter for those who may be displaced by coastal climate change or natural disasters. We take an interdisciplinary approach to this. To design an effective shelter, in addition to relevant architectural precedents, students would need to consider the climate of the site and a variety of perspectives about the people who would inhabit the shelters such as their eating habits, typical family size, medical needs, etc. Since I implemented this approach, the pass rate for my class (and Woodbury dictates that students must get a “C” in order to pass) has risen by 24% and course evaluations reflect students’ appreciation of a problem-based curriculum.  Class discussions throughout the semester have been more lively as well, and this overarching theme gives the course cohesion and helps students to place where they are in the process and to recall how they arrived there.

However, the work that my students have been doing, though it has been focused on a problem that deserves attention, is artificial in the sense that no one will actually use the information that the students organize into annotated bibliographies to build a structure of any kind. It will never gain a wider audience than me, their professor. Next fall, I hope to change that by combining forces with Jeanine Centuori, the founder of Woodbury University’s Architecture + Civic Engagement (ACE) Center. Recently, Woodbury students, in conjunction with ACE, designed and built a variety of structures at Taking the Reins, a local organization that offers urban farming and equestrian programs for girls “facing the challenge of adolescence in high-risk environments” and also at Shadow Hills Equestrian Center, which offers a therapeutic horsemanship program.  

ACE is currently exploring the possibility of designing and building a streetscape in inner-city Los Angeles that would unify a neighborhood and draw residents into public spaces. If the timing works out, I will have my students join the effort by compiling a comprehensive list of sources that will inform the streetscape design process by offering perspectives on the history and politics of the neighborhood, as well as case-studies of similar projects. It is my hope that my students will be inspired by the fact that their work will be integrated into a process that will make a tangible difference in a local community. I will let you know how it goes!

Have you integrated real-world problems into your teaching, whether in credit-bearing courses or “one-shot” instruction? If so, please share!  

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