This architecture program is built to last

Rice students’ RAMP Recess spreads love – and thought process – of architecture to youngsters

Here’s a lesson learned: What constitutes community is in the eye of the beholder.

When two graduate students at the Rice School of Architecture asked participants in their RAMP Recess program to imagine a community from scratch, the drawings they got in response included burger joints, a Texas-shaped swimming pool … and car dealerships.

“I’m from a small mountain town, and I would never have thought to do that,” said Keegan Hebert. With his colleague JP Jackson, Hebert is teaching Houston youngsters about architecture through The STEM Foundation, a community program that exposes local middle and high school students to as many career choices in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as early as possible.

Hebert and Jackson, both in their second year in Rice’s accelerated program for students who hold undergraduate degrees in architecture, admit that their project, part of the Rice Architecture Mentorship Program, is really recess for them, even more than it is for the 25 or so students in grades 6 to 12 who participate one Saturday a month.

“We called the program ‘Recess’ because it’s an opportunity for us to leave the school and engage the community,” Jackson said. “We wanted a name that reflected that community-oriented ambition. It’s a relatable term for students and something I think they would associate with fun. At least I do.”

They don’t intend RAMP Recess to encourage students to become architects, though that would be a plus. But Hebert and Jackson do want students to adopt the problem-solving mindset the profession requires.

“What we’re really trying to do is teach them to identify problems, propose solutions and be able to communicate ideas,” said Jackson, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati. “We think those are relevant and useful tools for them to have in day-to-day life.”

They also want their students to learn to pay attention to the buildings and the cities that surround them: The sum total of all the structures, streets and amenities around them, how they affect life in the community and how they can be changed to enhance life.

“We try to introduce Houston as something other than a network of roads,” said Hebert, who came to Rice from the University of Colorado.

Every session includes an extensive presentation on the day’s theme, an activity and feedback from the students. The themes cover topics like structures and space, but the teachers put special emphasis on communications and technology.

“We were discussing what it would take to make our engineering Saturday more interesting,” said Efrem Jernigan, president of Houston’s South Union Community Development Corp., which hosts The STEM Foundation. “We always try to put together a program to motivate kids to make a parent bring them. We designed a program that the parents seem to love just as much as the kids. I know I’m learning a lot.”

Keegan Hebert, left, and JP Jackson, both graduate students at the Rice School of Architecture, teach young Houston students how to see their environment through the eyes of an architect through the RAMP Recess program.

Keegan Hebert, left, and JP Jackson, both graduate students at the Rice School of Architecture, teach young Houston students how to see their environment through the eyes of an architect through the RAMP Recess program. Photo courtesy of RAMP Recess

He said all the participants and their parents are delighted with RAMP Recess so far. “It’s the best-attended Saturday of the month,” he said.

“Introducing technology to these children is probably the most important thing to Efrem,” Hebert said. “He’s very interested in design but always wants us to root it in technology.”

Students use the free version of a program, SketchUp, to make three-dimensional computer models and online tools like Google Earth to view urban environments in detail. “We use free programs because we want kids to be able to use them at home as well,” Hebert said. “One is using SketchUp to propose a community revitalization project, a series of gardens.”

The Rice students enjoy helping their participants learn to see the world around them with new perspective. “They mention how they are now thinking about structures in particular,” Hebert said. “We spoke about how buildings communicate in a certain way, how they invite the public or how they might unwittingly make the public feel unwelcome. Or are ambivalent to the public. Now these students are noticing things in their homes or their schools that they would change, which is nice to hear.”

“In one of our lessons about space, we asked them to consider their homes,” Jackson added. “We had them draw their homes as they are, and then Keegan and I crafted a few models with odd shapes and had them place all the rooms in their homes into these new homes of a different form. In that way, we were able to get them to try new drawing styles, to represent what a home might be, and to try to think about how new spaces could be formed, using things with which they’re already familiar.

“That’s one important thing we’ve learned: We always have to tie what we’re trying to teach them back to something they know,” Jackson said.

With the help of Gordon Wittenberg, a professor of architecture and RSA’s director of graduate studies, and John Casbarian, Rice’s Harry K. and Albert K. Smith Professor of Architecture, Jackson and Hebert approached the Rice Architecture Mentorship Program for its expertise. “RAMP pairs students with professionals in the discipline to show them opportunities after graduation,” Jackson said. “So within that realm of mentorship, we thought we needed some outlet for students to reach out and mentor younger people in the community.”

They recruit as many as six Rice architecture students to join them on class days to better aid participants and to encourage Rice and RAMP to continue the program after they graduate. “Keegan and I hope to try to build something here that can stay and grow at Rice,” Jackson said.

“There’s a lot of talented and energetic students, and we want to create a platform for them to reach out into the community.”

RAMP Recess fills the “engineering” slot for The STEM Foundation, and Jernigan wants to extend the relationship for at least another year.

“The way this has taken off, the students would be mad if we brought in another program,” he said. “When you find something that’s good, you don’t want to change it.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.