In the summer of 2003, Ryan Patterson, then a high school student, attended the Inside Design summer camp at Virginia Tech. “This was my first foray into architecture, and I remember feeling even at the time how impactful that spark would be,” he said.

Patterson joined Virginia Tech’s architecture and design school in 2005 and earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 2009.

Fast forward to the summer of 2022, Patterson, now an architect at the firm of Fultz & Singh, taught a new generation of high school students at the same summer camp.

Founded by faculty members Donna Dunay and Robert Dunay 20 years ago, the Inside Design program introduces high school students to the Virginia Tech college experience and teaches them to think and approach the world like professional designers. Chris Pritchett, an associate professor in architecture, now leads the program.

“One of my goals was to not only introduce young students to design and to our school, but to introduce them to individuals in the profession as well,” he said.

This year, Pritchett recruited active architecture and design professionals to serve as instructors at the camp.

He connected with a team of designers from Fultz & Singh, an architecture firm in Richmond. Instructors Ryan Patterson, Amrit Singh, Logan Healy, Jessie Gemmer, Kylie Heald, and Chase Long are all alumni of Virginia Tech's architecture program, and they welcomed the opportunity to connect their alma mater with their community.

Pritchett and the instructors from Fultz & Singh saw this partnership as strengthening the relationship between Virginia Tech and the professional design world. Over the course of the six-day camp, the instructors and their teaching assistants guided 154 students into a new way of perceiving the world and helped them see through the eyes of a designer.

Their first task was to explore a familiar, personal object to better understand why and how it was created. Each student brought a small item from home, dubbed an “artifact.” They were instructed to treat it as “a precious object.” In addition, they cataloged every detail of the artifact in a variety of media as though it would become a museum display.

As the sessions progressed, the students explored more complex concepts. They worked with light and shadow, spatial analysis, and other techniques as they became more familiar with the thought process of a designer.  

“Seeing the progression of the students thinking they had no idea what to do, and then getting to a place where they were proud of what they made, had a profound impact on me - because I remember that feeling myself," said Patterson.

These moments, he said, “revealed the inherent potential of every student.”

Inside Design participants displayed multiple iterations of their work for faculty and families to view at the end of the program. Photo by Lelan Yung for Virginia Tech.

On the second day, the students self-organized into work groups for their final projects. “Once the students started working on a group project, it was like a lightbulb went off,” Pritchett said, citing the importance of giving the students a chance to bounce ideas off each other and get real-time feedback.

Interspersed in the studio sessions were guest lectures from faculty members Miranda Shugars and Bill Green, who provided students with an opportunity to hear from experts in their field. Pritchett saw students “light up” as Green talked about the history of design and shared items from his collection of artifacts.

On the final day, students collected everything they created over the course of the week — models, designs, and drawings – and assembled a Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition in the lobby of Cowgill Hall. Family members were invited to view the exhibits and tour the studio space. The exhibits demonstrated the students’ progression over the course of the week and highlighted the evolution of their thinking processes.

“The final exhibits they put up looked like college-level design work,” said Lauren Malhotra, an events planner in the school.

A unique feature of the Inside Design camp is the on-campus camp experience, said Malhotra.

During the week, camp attendees lived the life of college students, staying in a suite-style residence hall with the teaching assistants assigned to each floor. They ate their meals in Virginia Tech’s award-winning dining halls.

Lelan Yung, a fifth-year architecture student who took photos during the week, was an Inside Design camper five years ago. “Attending the Inside Design camp was the reason that I applied to the Virginia Tech program. The freedom of living on a college campus helped me understand what the college experience would be like.”

After breakfast, students and instructors took “observation walks” on their way to the studio to begin their next session. “Even the walk was part of the curriculum,” says Malhotra.

Between the dining hall and studio, instructors quizzed students on things they saw around campus and taught them vocabulary that they would later use during the design sessions. The instructors treated the students as they would undergraduate, which created “a sense of actually being at college and having their own desk to come back to, which is a part of the design studio lifestyle,” said Patterson.

For many of the students, it was the first time they had experienced a college; providing them that opportunity is an important aspect of the program. 

“One of my goals for the Inside Design program is to make it more accessible to underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students,” said organizer Chris Pritchett.

The team at Fultz & Singh helped recruit students to participate in the camp. Their actions were guided by the question: “How can we address some of the inequity that exists in our community?” Their solution was to partner with youth advocacy groups in Richmond to recruit students who wouldn’t normally have the resources to attend a program like Inside Design. Through their combined efforts and outreach, 48 percent of students who attended the camp are from underrepresented groups, a strong departure from the current demographics of professionals in architecture and design professions.

“We wanted to see how we could use our position and influence to tip the scales back,” said Patterson. “And we knew that financial support would be critical in our recruitment strategy.”

Fultz & Singh demonstrated their commitment to the program by sponsoring two students for a full ride for the camp.

The professionals at Fultz & Singh also tapped into their networks to provide financial support for students who might not otherwise have been able to attend the camp. They hosted a raffle and a fundraiser, and they contacted members of their professional network to request donations. Many of their colleagues saw the importance of expanding access to this education for a new generation of designers.  Enough funds were raised to cover the cost for 24 students, ensuring that everyone who applied was able to attend.

Fultz & Singh will continue to be involved in the program, and Patterson and Pritchett view increasing scholarship opportunities as a major priority moving forward. Pritchett plans to keep in touch with students who attended the camp, which may encourage them to apply to the architecture and design programs at Virginia Tech.  

Written by Josh Sweeney

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