St. Louis — The sixth graders, sitting in rows at long tables, watched a visiting teacher pin up a series of bluprint summaries. ''How can we make a better group?'' she asked.
In a flash they sprang up and, working together, quickly shaped the individual desks into a vast conference table they could all gather around.
''You've just changed your environment,'' the young woman noted, ''and that's just what this class is all about.''
Janet Rothberg White of the American Institute of Architects thus began another project in what is called ''built-environment education.'' The subject is architecture and environment, but students also learn the route from abstract concept to concrete result. They are taught how to consult, interview, survey, research, and share decision-making; along the way they enjoy the fruits of accomplishment.
It all began two years ago when Susan Lieberman, executive director of the Educational Confederation (an association of independent schools in the St. Louis area), began to look for ways to add a broader range of art experiences to the curriculum and what she came up with was architecture.
''Children,'' she explained, ''had enormous exposure to architecture experientially and very little conceptually.'' What she wanted was a program that would bring architects and their ways of working into the schools.
Ms. White designed a program that would adapt to any level, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and launched into a succession of projects - first in private schools, later in public schools in St. Louis. In the two years the program has been running, Ms. White has directed 36 different projects in a variety of classroom settings. Her objective is to increase architectural awareness and develop students' ability to adapt and change the built environment.
To reach her goal, she uses the Critical Path Method - the code name for an architect's way of ordering and organizing the planning, design, and construction sequence.
Classroom work begins with a brainstorming exercise in which students identify the trades and professions that have contributed to the building of their school. As easy aspects of the list are exhausted, students stretch till their awareness of the complexity of the construction process embraces bankers and lawyers, realtors, manufacturers, and suppliers, as well as carpenters, masons, and plumbers.
The size and complexity of the list is a compelling argument for order and coordination in planning - as well as a vivid description of interdependence.
Students draw floor plans of their bedrooms as case studies in design. They can see that even in such a familiar environment there are purposeful design decisions to be made - that there is a relationship between order and effectiveness of use, and that space limitations, activity needs, and fixed features such as doors and windows all affect the choices they make.
The final design is a composite of the best elements from all the ideas and solutions offered. Every step in the planning process is an exercise in cooperation and shared decisionmaking. Difficult as it may be, there are no master architects, only teams.
The final event, when the children actually construct some of their designs, goes rather quickly. Costs are figured, materials ordered, tools brought from home. Students measure and cut, assemble and fasten, sandpaper and paint.
At Childgrove, an independent elementary school, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders designed and built a climber that is a storage place for lunch boxes and coats as well as a getaway space.
Besides the fact of the climber in a corner of a classroom (something they thought up and built), there is a real carry-over in work and study habits and the sense of sequence in problem solving, according to Childgrove director Dora Gianoulakis.
At Soldan, an inner-city St. Louis high school that participated in the project, a class in stagecraft designed and built a stage extension. Most students had had no experience with tools at all. They had never built anything.
''They learned,'' said Lyn Nicholay, their teacher, ''how and why something is built, but they learned as well that they could accomplish something. No one had ever asked them to do something like this, to build something, to make a contribution to the school. It was really a proving ground for most of them.''
''At the end they found they had done something. From start to finish they had done it all themselves. They learned to work together, to follow through, to police themselves. It was really a proving ground for most of them.''