At The Blueprint Academy, Stearns students learn drafting

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PITTSFIELD >> Stearns Elementary School student Lily Ouilette had a tall order to fill from her clients, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Taylor.

They needed a floor plan to help design their home in Portland, Maine, to accommodate their family members: Abeline and Jack, both 29, Aubrey and Brady, both 3, and a St. Bernard named Rufus.

While designing and mapping out a living space, Ouilette had to be mindful to take into consideration her clients' lifestyles: Abeline loves to cook and entertain, while the couple's twins like a lot of room to play. As for Jack, a baseball player and sports fan, he wants a "man cave."

This is the kind of real-life thought process introduced and applied in The Blueprint Academy, a program that celebrated its 12th year this semester. It's a program that raises the bar for students — they have to earn a grade of B or better during a drafting unit taught in Griffin's math class teaching area, perimeter, measurement and scale. Students who enroll in the program also have to commit to working before school, when the academy is held, from January until June.

"I have always believed that children will rise to meet your expectations," Griffin said. "My expectations have always been high, and my students met them and in many cases exceeded them."

The Blueprint Academy seems to have had a measurable impact in drumming up students' interest in this field over the years. The inaugural class only had eight students, all boys. This year's program had more than double that enrollment, and included an even split of male and female students.

Dovetailing off students' design skills, the school's fifth-grade last year held its inaugural Physics Olympics, which included paper bridge, egg drop, paper building, tinfoil barge, and distance competitions.

The Blueprint Academy program has been offered for free for students, with support underwritten through various grants from local manufacturer Sabic Innovative Plastics, and The BSA (Boston Society of Architects/AIA) Foundation.

The funding provides drafting materials and in the past, 3D design software like SketchUp, an industry standard. It's also allowed students to go on design and observation field trips to places like Hancock Shaker Village, the Center for EcoTechnology, The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate; and The Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., to see good regional architecture in action.

In 2011, The Blueprint Academy was used by Hancock Shaker Village as a springboard for developing an elementary school curriculum on culture, architecture and green design at the former Shaker homestead turned living history site.

Though the mission of the projects have varied each year, the foundation of The Blueprint Academy has remained constant — teaching young people the importance of listening, precision, accountability and creativity, while using the STEAM skills of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

"When the students started many had no idea how rooms were put together — pods with tunnels connecting them," Smith said. "They learned to use space wisely and efficiently. They had to use critical thinking skills — where should the toilet go in relationship to the shower and sink, where should the work areas in the kitchen be for a family that likes to cook, how many bathrooms would be needed for a family of five."

One of the early assignments in the program's history was for students to design a floor plan for their dream house. Griffin provided a basic footprint and elevation for a single-floor family home and the kids had to measure out the placement of walls, doors, windows, closets and furnishings using a scale of a quarter-inch per foot.

Beyond space and design, The Blueprint Academy also teaches fourth- and fifth-graders about sustainability and social responsibility, that eco-friendly materials exist, that clean and renewable energy is available, and why they might consider using them.

In 2012, the program earned a second-place state Secretary's Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education, which included a small grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, and an awards ceremony at the State House. The awards credited programs in the categories of renewable energy, water conservation, environmental protection and recycling.

"We really learn a lot," said program member, Audrey Harrington, who recently completed the semester-long session.

As with every session, this one concluded with a June 2 visit to edm, a architecture and engineering firm that re-located this past year to 100 West St., where Griffin's husband, Ron, serves as the company's founder and principal. This will likely be The Blueprint Academy's last class under Griffin's leadership, as the loss of her position of math coach is a consequence of the school department's recent budget cuts.

During their edm visit students found a showcase of their work on display in the second-floor foyer, and as a "diploma" for completing The Blueprint Academy, the students received a plot printout of their floor plans stamped with edm's official title block.

"It makes me feel proud," said Devin Taikowski of receiving the professionally printed plan.

The students also got to tour the renovated offices, with edm's lead architect, Tim Eagles, AIA, and interior designer, Dawn Eagles, and learned about the design process and various projects, such as a 21st-century renovation for a New Jersey elementary school, and the relocation of a whole building on the campus of Williams College.

"You guys should be really proud of yourselves. You really did a phenomenal job with these plans," drafter Dan Chapman told the students.

Lynne Griffin said that she believes the skills and experiences she's guided her math and Academy students through will be lifelong. When this year's group of nearly 20 students asked if they'd be interested in pursuing an architecture or engineering career, more than half of the group raised their hands.

The students also seemed motivated to support the whole group's success. Even after finishing their projects in the first week of May students Brenna McNeice and Tiffin Martin continued to show up in the mornings to help their classmates complete their work. Another Blueprint Academy student, Shaun Pytko, is showing his solidarity outside of class by walking the June 24 Relay For Life of Berkshire County Central South in honor of his teacher; last year was the only year Griffin didn't host a Blueprint Academy, because of her treatment for breast cancer.

"They're great," said Griffin of her students. "I have learned that all I have to give the students are the tools to complete the project and give them freedom to explore."

And, she told her students, the greatest fundamental to remember when something doesn't work out: "As they say, when one door closes, another opens."

The Blueprint Academy Class of 2016

Dion Bianco, Evan Blake, Riley Crawford, Nia Franklin, Ben Ginsberg, Hunter Golin, Audrey Harrington, Ella Ives, Rylee Lander, Brenna McNeice, Tiffin Martin, Frankie Pafumi, Julia Pierce, Lily Powell, Shaun Pytko, Leena Schettini, Devin Taikowski, Job Vengalil.


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