First-of-its-kind virtual summer design studio for high school students

In a unique partnership, Penn Praxis Design fellows led Fresh Air Everywhere, an intensive seven-week program providing teens with an introduction to design and architecture.

a design of a public space in an urban area, marked with summer art class, grafitti wall, and submission and a sign over the city street that says Bushwick Summer Block Party
One of the designs created by camper and New York City high school student Joanna. As part of the Fresh Air virtual studio, students were asked to create a “breathing room” space for their borough, which could be a place for social activity or exercise, a way to improve air quality, or installations that stimulate conversations on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a large number of summer activities moved online due to COVID-19, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design partnered with the nonprofit organization The Fresh Air Fund to launch a first-of-its-kind virtual studio. Led by Penn Praxis Design fellows, Fresh Air Everywhere was an intensive seven-week program that provided high school students with an introduction to architecture and landscape architecture while fostering skills in communication and community engagement. 

A spirit of giving back

The goal of the virtual studio was to provide an enriching summer experience for high schoolers who had lost out on summer activities, and to support Weitzman students and recent graduates who had lost out on summer internships. “We’ve always had a spirit of giving back, and we knew that it was going to be a difficult summer,” says Lori Kanter Tritsch, a Penn alumna and member of the Board of Overseers for the Weitzman School, who helped connect Penn Praxis Director Ellen Neises with The Fresh Air Fund. 

Earlier in the summer, The Fresh Air Fund, whose goal is to provide New York City children from low-income communities with opportunities to connect to the outdoors, was in the process of re-imagining its typical summer programming, and connecting with Penn provided a unique opportunity to empower students through design-based thinking. “Connecting kids to the outdoors is one reality, but we also provide opportunities to explore and meet new people,” says Fresh Air Fund Executive Director Fatima Shama. Another goal of the program, says Shama, was to provide stipends for New York City high school students who rely on the Summer Youth Employment Program, which was canceled this summer due to the pandemic

Neises brought together a team of Penn Praxis Design Fellows, students and recent graduates from the architecture, fine arts, and landscape architecture departments, who took on the development of a curriculum and preparing and shipping packages of drawing materials to the homes of 150 high schoolers, all in a matter of weeks. Then, during the seven-week program, “campers” met online in small groups from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday, participating in a mix of online and offline activities with virtual lessons led by a Design Fellow as instructor, a Fresh Air mentor, and a Weitzman alum or faculty member. 

a blocky design of a garden area made in Minecraft
Several campers, including Angelina, created their designs on gaming platforms like Minecraft. “It’s been fun to see how good they are at grabbing new tools and finding this middle space between old school hand techniques and software that takes a long time to learn,” says Ellen Neises.

Along with attending guest lectures and collaborating and critiquing the work of their peers, the program also helped connect students with resources and mentors from architecture and landscape architecture. The Point Community Development Corporation in the Bronx, The Beam Center in Brooklyn, and the Black Rock Forest Consortium in Cornwall, New York, helped students think about the context for their design work, provided comments on work in progress, and connected the young people to resources in New York to help them continue to explore career paths. Many faculty supported the Design Fellows by participating in reviews of the student work. 

Creative, honest, and responsive designs

Each camper completed two design projects, the design of the nature center at The Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation and a “breathing room” for their own borough, a space that could be broadly interpreted from a place for social activity or exercise, a way to improve air quality, or installations that stimulate conversations on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement which campers presented virtually during the last week of the program. Proposed redesigns for the Sharpe Nature Center included a tree library, an adventure course, and a multistory treehouse, while many breathing room projects combined green, natural areas with space to create art and connect with others in the community. 

Natalia Revelo La Rotta, a third-year master of architecture student and a co-founder of Inclusion in Design, saw the summer studio not only as an opportunity to work with students who were new to design but also as a way to incorporate more diversity into a design studio. Working with fellow program coordinators David Johnson and Xan Lillehei, Revelo La Rotta helped put together a curriculum that incorporated non-European perspectives and guest speakers of color. “A lot of the people we brought in to speak were people that would look like the students, and the references in the projects that we used to encourage their design thinking were also highlighting works of people of color across disciplines,” says Revelo La Rotta. 

Second-year master of architecture student and Design Fellow Reem Abi Samra says that one of the most challenging yet invigorating experiences as an instructor was emphasizing how and when students were engaging with the design process, such as when they talked about issues of space in their community and postulating a solution, however simple. “What you are doing right now is designing by just thinking of the problem and finding a solution,” Abi Samra would tell her students. “Defining what design and architecture means, and teaching that thinking, was the most challenging and most fun experience.”

Beyond being drawn to their creative and honest approach to design, Revelo La Rotta says that the students were also adept at taking in community feedback they received at the halfway point of their projects. “At first we were asking them to think for themselves. Then, through the breathing room project, we’re asking them to think about their communities and how to make the designs more inclusive,” she says. “These students were able to take this criticism, adapt to it and understand the core issues of why they are being asked this, and respond to it appropriately.” 

The power of design-based thinking

Shama hopes that Fresh Air Everywhere helped students learn more about career opportunities available in architecture, landscape architecture and in design more broadly. “This was an important summer for our kids to understand that they matter,” says Shama. “I hope some of that is what young people get to take away, not to mention the new skills and vocabulary, but a sense of self and a sense of hope.”

Like Shama, Neises was inspired by the success of this summer studio and hopes to continue exploring virtual opportunities in the future: “My dream is that we could do design/build projects in the future, where students are part of both designing and building something.”

Fresh Air Everywhere was also an opportunity for Design Fellows to meet students from outside their own departments, a rare opportunity to see firsthand the diverse set of tools, worldviews, and approaches used in different types of design. “Even the instructors were such a diverse group of people,” says Abi Samra about both the instructors’ fields and cultural backgrounds. “It was nice to hear from each other, and it felt more interesting to have such a different group of instructors and students to be part of this program.”

an aerial view for a nature center surrounded by green dots along the perimeter of a series of colored rectangles, the key shows that brown rectangles are snack bars, yellow shapes are benches, red circles are tables and benches, green circles are trees, blue circles are raindrop arcade tree tents, and beige circles are tree bookshelves
For the redesign of the Sharpe Nature Center, one group created a Tree Library, complete with bookshelves supported by neighborhing trees and areas to socialize or grab a snack.

In addition to the opportunity to diversify both the curriculum and the lineup of speakers and guests, Revelo La Rotta adds that an important facet of the studio was to get the students to ask questions, something she hopes that they take from the program. “Something that I kept urging was to question the information given to them, even what we tell them. Even if they don’t go into design, every profession suffers from racism, sexism, and classism Design thinking and questioning the status quo is a way of being able to advocate for themselves,” says Revelo La Rotta. 

Kanter Tritsch hopes that the summer experience provided students with both a great skill set as well as an increased awareness of new opportunities. “It’s limitless,” she says about the power of design-based thinking. “Designing for the next generation, being able to see how they made a difference for other campers, living and owning what they’ve built. It’s invaluable.”

Ellen Neises is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the executive director of Penn Praxis, the Weitzman School’s center for applied research, outreach, and practice. 

The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit organization that has provided free summer experiences to more than 1.8 million New York City children from low-income communities since 1877. 

The Fresh Air Everywhere Virtual Design Studio was made possible by a donation from Lori Kanter Tritsch, MArch’85, and her partner, William P. Lauder, W’83, executive chairman and chairman of the Board of Directors of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., Penn Trustee, and chairman of the Board of The Fresh Air Fund. This new gift, part of The Power of Penn Campaign, provided support to Penn Praxis Design Fellows as they led the virtual studio for Fresh Air youth in lieu of this year’s traditional summer camp experience.