This past summer, the nonprofit design practice, PennPraxis, in partnership with The Fresh Air Fund, piloted a new program, Virtual Design Studio, that sparked the imaginations of nearly 150 students to show how design has the power to change the built environment. Their courses, which were taught by University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design graduate students, generated multiple designs for a nature center operated by The Fresh Air Fund and public spaces in New York City and offered children an introduction to explore future careers in design that could have a lasting impact on their communities and the design professions for years to come. Over the course of seven weeks, these students committed over 150 hours to the program while also receiving a stipend.
Through two hands-on projects, Virtual Design Studio introduced students to design thinking and created community conversations with design leaders and their peers. Students first designed a new nature center on Sharpe Reservation, The Fresh Air Fund’s property on more than 2,000 acres in Fishkill, NY—a project that The Fresh Air Fund may take on in the near future. The second project was closer to home with the design of a “breathing room” in their own boroughs in New York City as their subject. The concepts for the breathing room included outdoor spaces for social activity and exercise, ways to improve air quality, and installations that generate conversation about space and race.
The Fresh Air Fund is a not-for-profit agency that provides life-changing experiences for children from New York City’s underserved communities. More than 1.8 million children have benefited from The Fresh Air Fund’s summer sleepaway camp experiences and The Fund’s volunteer host family program since the agency’s founding in 1877. The Virtual Design Program was made possible through donations from two Penn alumni, Lori Kanter Tritsch, who received a Master of Architecture from Penn in 1985, and her partner, William P. Lauder, Executive Chairman, Estée Lauder Companies, and a 1983 graduate of the Wharton School, who recognized the need for children to have a modified summer camp experience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“With a shortage of summer internship opportunities due to the limitations of COVID-19, we saw an urgent need to help design students and recent graduates gain the professional experience they need to excel in their field after graduation,” explains Kanter Tritsch, a longtime volunteer and dedicated member of the Weitzman School Board of Overseers. “Through our involvement with The Fresh Air Fund, we saw a natural synergy that would benefit Weitzman students and young alumni, and at the same time, create new opportunities for Fresh Air Fund youth impacted by the pandemic.”
At the online final review presentations, students were able to talk through their ideas, present final drawings, and models, and reflect upon what they learned from the camp-whether it was the new friends they made, design skills they learned, presentation skills that were sharpened, but most importantly, the perspective they gained on the built environment. They spent most of their time thinking about urban problems and ways to address them with out-of-the-box solutions and a critical mindset to tackle pressing issues.
Reem Abi Samra, one of the program instructors, noted that her students began the program with preconceived ideas about what buildings look like or how “realistic” a project should be. “For one instance, one of my students wanted to design a school and drew a typical facade with boxed windows and a front door. When I asked her why she designed it this way, she said that’s how her school looks and we had a very meaningful conversation about how the lack of space hinders involvement, socializing, and personal growth. We talked about how design is not necessarily about repeating what exists, but about thoughtfully introducing new ideas that could promote people’s wellbeing.” She also noted that through the experience of playing and building in video games like Minecraft, students’ perception of three-dimensional space was well developed, and the challenge was to get them to understand the two-dimensional nature of plans and sections.
According to Ellen Neises, executive director at PennPraxis and a faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn, roughly a third of the youth participated in the voluntary portfolio development and career and school counseling sessions at the end of the program, expressing interest in the field. Even if they never go into a design profession, and if they don’t continue to explore their interests in this field, they’ve learned important skills and gained a critical eye at such a young age that will forever change the way they see buildings and analyze their built environments.