Lawrence Tech’s Theory and Practice Graduate Curriculum
Achieving my Master of Architecture at Lawrence Technological University was more challenging than I expected, but it provided me with valuable skills and knowledge that have prepared me for my future. I was hesitant about pursing a graduate degree after completing my Bachelor of Science in Architecture from LTU, because I had already been working at a firm and did not see the benefits of obtaining licensure. I am yet to decide whether or not professional licensure is in my future, but I have always had my eye on pursing an academic career after gaining experience in the field. My work as a teaching assistant and academic advisor sparked the interest through allowing me to experience how rewarding it is to teach others and help guide them through their academic journey. Obtaining my graduate degree was a way for me to open more doors to teach as a professor, as well as fulfill the requirements for professional licensure, should I ever change my mind about taking the exams. But more than the piece of paper and additional line on my resume, the projects and courses from my graduate degree will be applied throughout my future career, be it a professor or a practitioner. As I move forward in both career paths, I can see aspects of both success and concern regarding the graduate curriculum at Lawrence Technological University and its adopted motto of Theory and Practice.
Lawrence Tech prides itself on incorporating a balance of theory and practice in its curriculum. I personally have gravitated toward the practice side of my education. The core courses Professional Practice 1 and Professional Practice 2, along the Project Management elective, were the most helpful in preparing me specifically as a practitioner. From my experience working in a firm, I gathered bits and pieces of how everyday firms and projects are run. These courses filled in the holes and covered information that was entirely excluded from my undergraduate education. The courses covered the issues of professional licensing, regulations, construction administration, project teams, working with clients, budgets, and much more. All three courses heavily emphasized class discussion, which is where much of the additional value and insight came in. Most students were working and came from a range of firm types, so discussing and sharing our issues and experiences created a unique and dynamic learning experience for everyone.
From my experience in graduate school, I feel like courses such as this are critical in the graduate curriculum, and these topics should even be covered more in the undergraduate curriculum. Within my time enrolled in grad school at LTU, these courses have been emphasized less in the curriculum and are being converted to electives, which gives them less weight in the overall degree. I believe shifting the balance away from these practical courses is a mistake, and will negatively impact the students that do not experience what these courses have to offer. From the 2012 NCARB Practice Analysis of Architecture: Education Report, survey results among professions indicated that areas such as Project Management and Practice Management need more reinforcement in accredited educational programs. In fact, issues such as project delivery, schedules and feasibility are often not introduced to students. The majority of students hope to go into the practice of architecture rather than academia; the curriculum should be able to prepare them for it.
Administration advertised that the first graduate studio the students take is supposed to set the bar for the remaining two studios, but I am thankful that it was not the case. The Critical Practice Studio, formally known as Master Class, was partially an intense theoretical design studio and partially a quirky social experiment. Students were divided into teams of seven, based on a personality test. Ideally, the instructors were trying to increase the potential for success by giving each team diversity in their teammates’ personality, strengths, weaknesses, and leadership preferences. The premise of this set up had its advantages, but the addition of a teamwork therapist proved distracting to the overall intent and flow of the course. The therapist was well-read in corporate team structure and gave a genuine attempt to enhance each team’s success. Unfortunately, treating a group of graduate architecture students striving to a complete a design as a team like a typical corporate team was not appropriate. I believe that this aspect of the Critical Practice Studio could be eliminated, as it does not relate the way teams work in the actual field. The NCARB Education Report encourages more collaboration in education and the collaboration should remain, but professionals do not have the luxury of working in a team of people hand-picked by personality type. For the design project, each group had to propose an ecological design that creates better opportunities for a city that falls in the Great Lakes Basin. The resulting projects were grounded in research, and relied heavily on mapping and diagramming exercises. I feel like this was appropriate for practicing theoretical projects in academia and CIAM-type architectural groups, but not typical practice in most architectural firms.
The Research Methods course, which would have ideally been positioned before the Critical Practice Studio in the sequence, aimed to prepare students for undertaking extensive research projects and/or publications. It taught students the various types of research and how to distinguish which types are appropriate for a given project, and then the various methods on how to gather and present the research. I chose a research topic that related to architectural education: Whether or not cross-disciplinary studios should be incorporated in the curriculum. By choosing this research topic, I gained insight and knowledge that I can take with me if I end up working in an academic setting. However, should I continue as a practitioner, I will likely not use much of what I learned in Critical Practice Studio and Research Methods.
Since my experience in Master Class and Research Methods, administration has increased the credits for these courses. The NCARB Educational Report results show that the skills students are acquiring the most of involve diagraming, research, and the communication of ideas. Increasing the workload and value of course certainly does not hurt and is fine in concept, but not when it causes the emphasis of other important courses to be lessened.
Theory & Practice
Two of the courses I believe were well-balanced in theory and practice were Land Economics and my particular section of Advanced Design Studio 2, which emphasized structure and sustainability. Land Economics paired the practical aspects of development feasibility and with design concepts of urban/retail design. Students looked at demographics, market studies, development typologies, and pro forma to arrive at conclusions for their proposed development. The guest lecturers, who included Michael Graves, Raphael Vinoly, Ken Walker, and Eugene Kohn, along with the assigned readings added design concept and theory throughout the course.
Of the three graduate studios in the curriculum, the Advanced Design Studio 2 course related the most to how a design project is approached in a firm environment, while the academic setting of the course allowed for more creativity and flexibility in the actual design of the stadium. The project was to design a soccer/rugby stadium, through design development, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The course began with case studies on the stadium typology, which gave all of the students a variety of ideas and options for the planning and design of their future stadium. Next, the class broke into groups to research the project site and its history, which created an extremely thorough site analysis for the entire class to draw information from. Schematic design involved creating four different design alternatives, which was comparable to the design alternatives that one might show a client in a professional setting. As our designs became more developed, we utilized structural calculation software that analyzed where any weak points of design’s structure might be. We also did material take-offs and utilized software that assesses the energy impact of our chosen materials and systems. A core requirement of the project was to achieve LEED Silver or higher, which involved making sustainable design decisions from the beginning of the design process. These technical aspects of the course made it very practical and relevant. I believe that undergraduate studios are a time to explore and learn the basics, but that graduate studios should add more possible/practical requirements in order to help students transition into the professional world.
I believe I experienced an adequate balance of both Theory and Practice from my education. However, given the new curriculum changes and the fact that I choose practice-based electives, many students will leave LTU with more weight on the Theory side. I was also fortunate to be working at a firm throughout graduate school, further complementing the practice components of the courses I took. The reputation of LTU in the field of architecture is regarded highly, and employers praise LTU students in general for their ability to actually produce and contribute when they come to work in a firm. The professionals surveyed in the NCARB Education Report expressed that students need to be introduced to more skills from the “practice” side of architecture in their education. If the recent trend of de-emphasizing the more practical courses continues, the reputation of LTU and the overall career success of the students could suffer. The Theory and Practice motto applied to the architecture curriculum has been successful thus far, and the college should strive to maintain that balance.
The following link refers to the 2012 NCARB Practice Analysis: Education Report survey results mentioned throughout this essay: