February 18, 2021 Category: Our Programs Partnerships

Virtual Design Studio: Empowering NYC Youth through Exploration of Architecture and Urban Design

“I became more creative during the PennPraxis program and can now see myself studying architecture in college. I was surprised that in architecture there is no limit to an idea – no matter how bizarre it may seem, it is quite possible to achieve,” 17-year-old Virtual Design Studio student, Diarriou said.  

After our traditional summer programs were cancelled, and in response to the significant cuts to the Youth Employment Program, The Fresh Air Fund in partnership with PennPraxis at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design created an innovative and engaging virtual course focused on architecture and urban design for 150 Fresh Air youth, ages 14 to 17 years old.  

The interactive Virtual Design program focused on two hands-on projects: a new nature center for The Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, NY; and designing a “breathing room” in their own neighborhoods in New York City.  

Students received 20 hours of instruction from PennPraxis Design Fellows, all of whom are recent graduates or graduate level architecture students, each week, for seven weeks. Members of the Fresh Air summer team served as mentors providing students with guidance and support throughout the summer and students received stipends after completing the course. 

We are grateful for the generosity and leadership of William Lauder, The Fund’s Chairman of the Board, and Lori Kanter Tritsch, a long-time Fresh Air supporter, for their vision and support of this innovative program,” says Fatima Shama, Executive Director of The Fresh Air Fund. “This creative, educational, and professional development opportunity encouraged our teens and youth to broaden their horizons about potential careers and gave them tools to make a lasting impact on their communities and beyond.


Building a New Nature Center  

With over 2,000-acres of land, with lakes, ponds, streams and hiking trails in Fishkill, NY, The Fund’s Sharpe Reservation is home to five of our camps. Sharpe’s nature center offers year-round environmental programs for school and community groups. During the summer, campers visit the nature center and the adjacent planetarium. 

Students were asked to design a new nature center, which was an incredibly unique project and opportunity as The Fresh Air Fund is considering building a new one in the future. The designs needed to connect the classroom environment to the outdoors and integrate natural elements.  

14-year-old Virtual Design student, Kelly’s Nature Center design.  
16-year-old Virtual Design student, Serenity’s Nature Center design.  

“I think my favorite part was when we worked on the Nature Center in groups. I really enjoyed that! I feel like we all worked really well together to get the project done,” Osaru, 16, said.  

Designing a “Breathing Room”  

For their second assignment, students worked on a project focused on their own neighborhoods. Students participated in brainstorming sessions about how they could create “breathing rooms” in their communities – and reflected on how the “breathing rooms” could offer a connection to nature. Projects included outdoor spaces for art installations, as well as for exercise and relaxation.  

16-year-old Virtual Design student, Khayla, created a “Breathing Room” for her East Harlem neighborhood.
15-year-old Virtual Design student, Lizi, created a “Breathing Room” for her neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“I started learning about environmental problems and how much I didn’t know they affected where I live. I live in the Bronx and with all the smog and most of the trash going to the Bronx, it is causing a lot of people to get asthma,” 16-year-old Mikayla from the Bronx said.  

Mikayla questioned how she had lived in the Bronx her whole life and did not see the impact of the Bronx’s environmental issues on her friends and family. It was not until Mikayla conducted further research and continued the conversation with her friends that she learned how many of her friends had asthma. 

Final Review Presentations 

At the end of the course, students joined together with members of the Fresh Air community and leaders in the design field, for a final showcase of their projects.  

At the end of the seven-week course, students presented their work and projects in a final showcase. 

“Through our involvement with The Fresh Air Fund, we saw a natural synergy that would benefit Weitzman students and young alumni, and at the same time, create new opportunities for Fresh Air Fund youth impacted by the pandemic,” said Kanter Tritsch, a longtime volunteer and dedicated member of the Weitzman School Board of Overseers. 

Through the program, students learned more about themselves and their communities – all while developing professional skills and realizing the power of creativity and collaboration.

Watch our summer video to learn more about our other teen programs and how we kept the magic of summer alive.