Thinking Ahead: Educating Now for the Profession of the Future

November 5, 2009 · by Renée Cheng

If the profession we imagine is data-enabled, performance-driven, and expertise-based and its scope addresses the most urgent needs of society, then what are the corresponding educational values we need to express?

Climate change, data-driven technology, and global practice have already radically increased the demands on the architecture profession. New opportunities present the potential to expand the scope of design thinking to address broad social needs. Architectural education must find ways not only to meet the demands of the current era but also inspire future leaders. For educators, our mandate should be to teach students to lead a profession that does not yet exist.


Most current architectural curricula are not well positioned to accept this responsibility. Open up a course plan for almost any graduate professional program and you will find a curriculum divided neatly into two sequential pieces: a core foundation covers the initial requirements before entering a second “open-option” or elective segment (Figure 1a). In both core and elective semesters, the structure is fairly consistent — each semester contains one heavily weighted design studio with two or three lecture or seminar classes (Figure 2a). These lectures and seminars are sometimes called “support” or “non-studio” classes, terms meant to denote a format other than the open-ended lateral design processes that are the hallmarks of the design studio.

Overtly, subtly, or unintentionally, there is a value system embedded in this structure. Students get the message: Spend your time on design studios before non-studio courses and invest in elective studios most of all. Often, prestigious visiting practitioners and digitally facile faculty teach the elective studios while core studios are the realm of traditionally trained faculty and local adjunct practitioners. A typical core studio will have a local site, a known project type, and may require a wall section. Elective studios can be site-less, scale-less, or free from the constraints of gravity. While this may be impractical, these studios serve a purpose to invite speculation, imagine futures, and develop new ways of thinking of the world.

While the curriculum described above is commonly employed, this does not mean it should be our model. We need not accept the value system it implies, especially if these values are antithetical to the demands of a new profession. Elective and core studios should not be structured so that innovative form-making skills are prized over fundamental design competencies. Similarly, the message should not be that design studios are more worthy of students’ energies than non-studio courses such as history, theory, or building technology. What we need is a new value system that directs students’ passion to the diverse range of skills and interests needed to drive the future profession.

If the future profession we imagine is data-enabled, performance-driven, and expertise-based and its scope addresses the most urgent needs of society, then what are the corresponding educational values needed today?

Scanning the most progressive courses in the professional programs across the country, I see several promising trajectories that suggest a shift in values:

•    While design and studio will always be synonymous, design thinking can and should be everywhere in the curriculum.

•    Manipulation of formal geometry is not an end in itself. Form is most powerful when integrated with the flow of energy, cost of materials, or production processes.

•    Hybrid and collaborative ways of working are increasingly important. Students need to learn collaboration skills and be exposed to diverse agendas and multiple points of view.

•    Leadership and entrepreneurial skills are essential in all areas of the curriculum, not just in the professional practice area.

A discussion of values in our curricula is likely to remain frustratingly abstract until we test various curricular structures and courses that embody them.

The professional curriculum recently developed at the University of Minnesota offers a useful model for discussion. Over the past two years, faculty have developed a new structure and a variety of new courses in the Master of Architecture program (see sidebar“Behind the Scenes: The Process of Educational Change”). The linear path that begins with core and ends with elective was too reminiscent of the nursery rule that vegetables must be finished before eating dessert. Since we believe core and elective modes are equally desirable, we decided on a path that alternates between a semester-long core each fall with a set of short course studios and workshops each spring. The analogy we preferred was that of an athletic regimen in which strength and aerobic training take turns, allowing muscles to rest while cardiovascular fitness is exercised, and vice versa.

The fall semester assumes that learning design is a maddeningly slow process that benefits from a high level of integration with non-studio courses such as building technology, history, theory, or professional practice. The spring semester offers a set of short courses ranging from one to seven weeks that incorporate design in new and hybrid ways. In the spring, connections between courses are not predetermined and are different for each student. Students remain in their year level cohort each fall but combine in the spring in a vertical mix. The pace in the fall and spring semesters is equally intense but fundamentally differing in nature. Together, the two complementary semesters can be read as a set of values. Underlying this curriculum are the beliefs that:

•    Design thinking requires several modes of inquiry and benefits from varying the pace. Traditional and experimental design teaching are equally exciting, intense, and meritorious.

•    Faculty have valuable knowledge of the past and present, while students have a perspective of the future. Both contribute to this curriculum — faculty create integrated curricular goals in fall semester; student choices in the spring drive a variety of experiences that might be deeply specialized or broadly generalist.

•    Conventional studio teaching is irreplaceable, but the power of design-based teaching can reach far beyond the studio. We keep studios yet also create project-based learning opportunities in which design thinking is applied to topics not typically considered in studio courses.

•    Challenges should be embraced early and often in a student’s time in school. The world is full of complex, messy problems that elude simple solutions. While the role of design thinking in solving them is not yet defined, addressing the complexity can suggest ways to expand the scope of design.

The exigencies of the time in which we live require that architectural educators evaluate common values we have shared in the past and suggest how they should change. Education has powerful influence; our current educational values may very well be the single strongest force in shaping the future of the profession. The more schools are willing to test their values with new courses and new curricular structures, the better that future will be.


Renée Cheng, professor and head of the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota, serves as president of AIA Minnesota and on the AIA National Board Advisory Group on Integrated Practice. She has written about the role of BIM and other technologies in transforming architectural education. Her practice background informs her case study-based teaching in design, building technology, and professional practice. Numerous teaching awards at national, regional and local levels have recognized her contributions as an educator.

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Behind the Scenes: The Process of Educational Change

Change at the University of Minnesota’ School of Architecture was primarily shaped by the voices of its junior faculty. In fact, in 2008, an AIA Education Honor Award recognized the faculty authors of the original concept: Ritu Bhatt, Renée Cheng, John Comazzi, Ozayr Saloojee, and Marc Swackhamer. These four assistant professors were given a set of objectives and asked to create a curricular scheme over summer break. The resulting proposal was enthusiastically received while recognizing logistical issues and the need for more clear definition of its embedded values. Debate, testing, and development were intense during the next two semesters and formed the transition to the new curriculum (described at http://arch.design.umn.edu/).

The extremely fast-tracked timeframe took only one academic year (nine months) from sketch to full-scale implementation. Early results indicate a promising trajectory; however, two more years will be needed to see the first graduates of this new curriculum.

Change in any institution is difficult, but the process of change in the academy can be slow.

• Change in universities is often likened to “turning a big ship,” where progress is measured a few degrees at a time because of the many layers of process and review and the general conservatism embedded in institutions of learning. Flexibility can be difficult as timing of decisions must work within policies and schedules set by university bureaucracies with long planning horizons.

• As with any change process, communication is key. In academia, opportunities for dialog compete with the time-consuming demands of individual faculty research and teaching responsibilities.

• On the positive side, most universities offer resources to support teaching innovation and provide organizational strategies for managing change.

• An additional set of factors for accredited architecture programs is the periodic review demonstrating how they meet national standards.

• Interpersonal dynamics in academia are notably different than in the corporate world. Typically, senior members of the faculty are tenured and newer members will eventually seek tenure, a status granted after a review by senior colleagues. This system can reveal tensions, particularly now when the speed of change has created vast generation gaps within most faculty bodies or between faculty and students.

While there are myriad factors to consider in academia, they need not be obstacles to change. The faculty at the University of Minnesota approached the development of a new curriculum like a design problem: An inspiring initial sketch was tested against hypothetical scenarios, actual courses, and critical input from students and outside experts. Over the course of this process, the values embedded in the curriculum became more clearly focused and could be communicated to the variety of audiences required for support.

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