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Engaging High School Students in Active Design

By Cathy Dos Santos

October 7, 2022

This post was authored by Barbara Martinez-Guerrero on September 12th, 2022, published by Cathy Dos Santos


If we truly believe what is often said that children are our future, then we must guide and facilitate their learning and experiences so that they are prepared to lead. This means students today must think about how their environment meets a community’s current needs and how it should adapt to meet the needs of tomorrow. Dream in Green’s school program engages high school students in real-world challenges that empower them to come up with creative design solutions to improve environmental sustainability.

For the last 4 years, teams of high school students from various schools throughout Miami-Dade County have been matched with graduate students from FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) to participate in an Eco-Community: Design & Build competition. The teams are given a specific theme each year along with an actual location to explore. They then present their ideas to their peers and local experts.

Last year’s competition engaged the students in thinking about the Active Design guideline focused on development patterns. Groups were asked to implement strategies that focus on land use, community development, and planning practices in their design. In partnership with Healthy Little Havana, students conducted a site visit to a vacant lot owned by the City of Miami and developed ideas on a semi-permanent structure that not only would meet the needs of the community but also attempt to tackle one of the biggest problems it faces – illegal dumping and litter. Their design idea had to apply context-sensitive design solutions to preserve and reflect the character of the existing historic neighborhood.


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Eco-Community: Design & Build participants working on their design
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Dream Green students presenting their build
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Student groups showcasing their final build for the Eco-Community: Design & Build competition at FIU

The winners, chosen by a panel of judges that included city planners, architects, and FIU professors, consisted of a public green space that invited the passerby to participate in a community garden, filled with Latin-influenced art pieces, a nature-inspired outdoor classroom, and a flexible outdoor pop-up space for community-building activities. The solutions proposed for this space also correlated with some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) such as Zero Hunger, Good Health and Wellbeing, and Building Sustainable Cities and Communities. 

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Winning group of the 2021 Eco-Community: Design & Build competition

This year’s competition focuses on imagining what Downtown Miami will look like in 2100 and they must explore how to adapt to sea level rise. While climate change is a global issue, it is felt on a local scale. Local governments are therefore at the frontline of adaptation. Cities and local communities have been focusing on solving their own climate problems. They are working to build flood defenses, plan for heat waves and higher temperatures, install better-draining pavements to deal with floods and stormwater, and improve water storage and use (Source: NASA). Students will need to research resilient design, which is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters and disturbances—as well as long-term changes resulting from climate change—including sea level rise, increased frequency of heat waves, and regional drought.

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2021 Eco-Build: Design & Build competition participants working on their build

This type of project-based learning opportunity directly supports the overall goal of Active Design Miami- to enhance both physical and social connectivity in order to improve health outcomes now and in the future.