MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE -- Colby Child always toyed with the idea of becoming an architect. He just never dreamed he would be contributing to his first commercial project at age 15.
Colby and his fellow ninth-graders at Venture Academy are contributing research and design ideas to their new high school, to open in fall 2013.
"I really enjoyed doing the plans on Google SketchUp," said Colby, of North Ogden, speaking of 3D software used by design and engineering professionals. "And I got to job shadow the architect working with us. I think I've learned more from this school project than from any other."
Student David Keith Brown, 15, from Ogden, suggested floor cutouts, surrounded by safety railing, that will allow students to look from one level to the other. So far, the cutouts remain in the design.
"Years from now when I drive by the building, I can say I helped design the hallways," Brown said.
When the kindergarten through ninth-grade charter school decided to purchase an adjacent field and construct a new high school, it only made sense that students would play a major role in the project, said Principal Jenn Thompson.
Five-year-old Venture Academy is an expeditionary-learning school and focuses on learning through long-term investigations, group projects, field studies and oral presentations of student work.
Students study a major theme for a year or more, and learn their language skills, math, history and more through that project.
"With architecture, students thought they would be drawing pretty pictures," Thompson said. "But they've learned math and geography and speaking skills, all through their study of architecture."
At first, student design suggestions were somewhat fanciful.
"The anti-gravity room didn't make the cut," Thompson said, smiling. "The students suggested it in jest, of course. But the staff did like the idea of a hot tub in the teacher's lounge."
David is still pushing for the idea of a basement pool.
"With the high water table, we could really just dig a hole," he joked.
The more serious study started with the site design. Students divided into groups and studied how best to protect the wetland on the 7-acre site, and the best place for the building and parking lot. The teachers challenged them to determine the best angle for the building, to maximize the potential for solar energy collection.
Students did math problems to demonstrate long-term savings versus the initially higher cost of low-flow faucets and toilets. Students also worked in groups to design blueprints, and to build foam models, to scale, of their proposed school buildings. Students drew ground-view renderings of their building proposals. The teens researched papers and made multiple revisions. They perfected their assigned oral presentations. Students presented their findings and suggestions to the project steering committee.
Architect Jeff Davis, of the Salt Lake City firm Architectural Nexus, spent a minimum of four hours a week visiting with students, teaching them specialized skills and exchanging ideas.
"The great thing about working with kids is they haven't been trained in the way things should be," Davis said. "They still have their creativity and their ability to think about solutions in different ways than we would as adults. It's good to see those natural talents come out in students."
Thompson said all final design decisions are made by the architect and steering committee, of course, but features based on ideas from students will be evident throughout the new school.
The end result will be a $5 million, 19-classroom building with common areas for a cafeteria, auditorium and fieldhouse. Funding will come from the school's operating costs and through per-pupil funding from the state. At about 40,000 square feet, the building will be "cozy," Thompson said.
"We like cozy," she added.
Venture Academy has about 500 students, and will increase to 800 in the next few years as it transitions into a K-12 school, Thompson said. Tenth-graders will be in portable buildings next year, as they watch the new high school rise, she said.
Courtney Fairbourn, 15, from Perry, gave her year of learning through architecture high marks.
"It's been really cool," she said. "Projects at my old school were not that big a deal. They were quick and fun, then you forgot about them. The high school will be here for a long time, and besides the usual subjects, I've learned about craftsmanship and excellence."
"And only one kid lost a finger," David joked. "OK, nobody really lost a finger."