Design Apprenticeship Program 15th Anniversary
By Lauren Wilson, teen programs manager
“There is something to be said for the value of having built something, seeing the product of one’s labors in use, putting in hard work and long hours and reaping the benefits.”
Ananda Ewing-Boyd, 17, Design Apprenticeship Program and Teen Council participant since 2012
Now in its 15th year, the Design Apprenticeship Program began as an opportunity for Washington, D.C. teens to discover, design, and connect with peers and professionals. Known originally as the “DAP Squad,” the program began in 2000 as a series of afternoon workshops during spring break. The first design project, a waste receptacle fashioned from discarded traffic signs, is still used in the Museum today. Since then, over 600 teens have participated in the Design Apprenticeship Program, working on projects that benefit both the Museum and its community partners.
Inspired by a design-build program for teens at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, then Museum staffer Mike Hill and his colleagues sought to create a similar program in Washington D.C. Hill envisioned a complement to the already established CityVision and Investigating Where We Live programs—an experience that would introduce teens to the rewarding challenges of building something—in his words, “working collaboratively with a team, limited by the constraints of materials, tools, and a budget.” As Hill saw it, the value of the program was bringing the students together, and focusing on "giving them something to talk about while keeping it a meritocracy through delegation of skills and responsibilities.”
The first session of the Design Apprenticeship Program consisted of a foundation in design and construction for new students, followed by a second session for returning students interested in expanding their skills. In recent years, the participants’ design challenges have yielded seating solutions for the Museum, puppet theaters for a Head Start program, storage and workspace structures for the fire-damaged Takoma Education Campus, custom furniture for families in transitional housing, small and free libraries, and community gardens. Most recently, participants designed a suite of interventions for the Petworth Community Market, including signage, seating, and interactive elements.
Alexis Robinson participated in five Design Apprenticeship Program sessions throughout her high school years. After graduating and pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in environmental science, Robinson returned to the Museum as an instructor and assistant. “Design gives people an outlet for creativity,” says Robinson, “and a way to share how they see different parts of their environment.” Currently pursuing a master's degree in community planning at the University of Maryland, Robinson found the relationships she formed in the program had an enormous impact, adding “you are meeting people with the same general interests as you, but they come from different backgrounds and are going different places. You are given a chance to share your experiences with each other and that might change your or their direction.”
Taylor Hicks, a recent program alumnus, shared a similar view about design’s ability to unite diverse people to solve problems. “The information that can be gathered from a simple or complicated design creates conversation among people," Hicks said, "which brings people together and opens up a platform for learning.” An aspiring illustrator and artist studying medical illustration, Hicks credits her experiences with peers and adults in the Design Apprenticeship Program with guiding her on a path to her current college major.
Whether a participant goes on to pursue studies in community planning or illustration, there is much for them to take away from their experiences in the Design Apprenticeship Program beyond the technical skills. “Kids learn to think in three dimensions. If you become a designer or not, you are becoming a good citizen because you learned skills you didn’t have, you worked as a team, and worked with adults who were teaching you,” says Hill.
Many of the program's participants feel the element of collaboration is key. Personal connections with peers and adults stood out as a highlight for Oluwafemi (Femi) Morrisey, another alumnus of the Design Apprenticeship Program and other Museum’s Teen Programs. Starting in the CityVision program when he was eleven, Femi has continued to participate even after graduating high school in 2008. He has interned, volunteered, and even staffed Investigating Where We Live, the Teen Council, and the Design Apprenticeship Program, attributing these collected experiences with helping him find his voice and confidence:
“In the Design Apprenticeship Program it’s more about your personality that plays a larger role than, say, how good you are at math or drawing. I learned how to adapt to different people and their personalities, and how to find common interests. The adults were just like cooler versions of us. We didn’t feel stressed out around them, we weren’t afraid to ask questions. They made it a safe environment to do trial and error and let us make our own mistakes. I learned how to take risks there, and it’s impacted the rest of my life. I learned how to put myself out there and share ideas as a teenager, which has made it easier to do so as an adult.”
- Oluwafemi (Femi) Morrisey
Morrisey is currently working toward completing his bachelors of science in human development and hopes to work with educational and outreach programs as a diversity specialist.
Joshua Krauss, a current Design Apprenticeship Program participant and one of our Teen Council co-chairs, also felt the program was instrumental in helping him find his voice and learn to take risks. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Krauss found social relationships with his schoolmates challenging. When he enrolled in the program he was home schooled, feared kids his age, and being bullied. "Being able to meet my fellow peers and adults, [the Design Apprenticeship Program] greatly removed a big portion of stress in my life,” says Krauss. “Not only did I develop social skills, I met peers my age that didn’t mind that I was unique. I enjoy that I get to see a wide range of personalities and kids from other schools that bring different ideas and experiences."
The experience of finding common ground and making connections with people different from oneself through the platform of design also resonates with Ananda Ewing-Boyd. Ewing-Boyd is a senior in high school and also a co-chair for the National Building Museum’s Teen Council. In 2012, she and her team designed and built custom furniture for a family in transitional housing through a partnership with the Transitional Housing Corporation. Ewing-Boyd enjoyed “channeling the creative energy she found latent within architecture and within young minds, and putting that towards a public service.” She also appreciated the value of having built something with one’s hands and then "seeing the product of one’s labors in use, putting in hard work and long hours and reaping the benefits." In the future, Ewing-Boyd hopes to work as a pediatric psychiatrist on the Oglala Lakota reservation Pine Ridge in South Dakota and pass on design-build skills to local students.
While the essence of the Design Apprenticeship Program remains the same every year, its curriculum has evolved through several iterations in order to continue having an impact on the teens who come through the studio. Asked to consider future adaptations, alum Femi Morrisey imagines the program growing beyond Saturdays and becoming a true, ongoing haven of design and creativity for youth: "There would still be a main project that people are working on, but returning students who have developed more advanced skills would feel comfortable coming in and working on their own design projects,” he says, “the space would be like a design haven for students to be creative whenever they wanted.”
The design showcase for this fall’s Design Apprenticeship Program I will take place on Saturday, November 14 beginning in the Museum’s auditorium at 1 pm.
See our calendar for more details.
Are you a Design Apprenticeship Program alumnus, former staff or volunteer, or family of a past participant? Have a connection to any of our other teen programs? We’d love to hear from you. What did you value about the people you met, the projects you built, and the communities you connected to? What impact did our programming have on you?
Please contribute to our growing collection of Museum memories from the last 35 years.
The Design Apprenticeship Program is generously supported by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; The Tower Companies; Hattie M. Strong Foundation; Clark Charitable Foundation; American Society of Interior Designers; The Butz Foundation; Zeldin Family Foundation; and an anonymous donor. Geppetto Catering, Inc. is the official meal provider for Teen Programs at the National Building Museum.