April 13, 2023

At Springfield's High School of Science and Technology, teens are getting a glimpse into what life could be like as an architect—thanks to the Future Architects Club, a six-session architecture workshop run by Erika Zekos, senior lecturer and undergraduate program director in the UMass Amherst Department of Architecture, and My-Ron Hatchett, senior project manager for the Department of Capital Asset Construction for the City of Springfield. 

The workshop is held after school and open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors enrolled in Springfield public schools. It introduces students to the field of architecture and the construction industry. Created with a spatial justice lens, it also invites students to analyze and discuss equitable distribution of space and resources in their city in a program that combines theory with advocacy and action.  

“Our goal with this is tied into two things: a longstanding interest by the Department of Architecture and its faculty to do outreach to the next generation of college students, and the intention of making this field—and our degree—accessible to everyone,” explains Zekos. 

“Black architects only make up two percent of the industry. That was part of my efforts to get into high schools and let students see an architect that maybe looks like them, and see that it’s possible to enter this field,” says Hatchett. “They’re not all going to become architects, but at least they’ll become aware of the paths available to them—engineering, construction, designing furniture—and see that the design industry is massive.”  

For this spring, there are six students who attend the weekly workshop, coming from five different Springfield high schools. All are juniors and seniors. 

Zekos has developed a curriculum for the program that begins by introducing students to architectural concepts. Students will be asked to create an asset mapping project where they discuss their city, the history of racial and class oppression, and consider how that’s shaped the built environment of Springfield, she explains.  

From there, the class will shift gears into action. Students will be tasked with coming up with a design for what they’d like to see exist in their city.  

“In our brainstorming session last week, the students identified a number of different project ideas that they were interested in pursuing, including a waste recycling/re-use center, a daycare, a small business incubator for people of color, a Buddhist temple, a community center, and a park/urban garden. What they identify as important is what we’ll focus on in the second half of the workshop,” Zekos says. “They are demonstrating how thoughtful and engaged they are! My goal, honestly, is to learn from the students here. If we could co-create some knowledge between what I know about architecture education, what My-Ron knows as someone who has had a prolific career in the field, and what the students know about their own lives and city, and really generate a case for action, that would be the dream.”  

A Springfield native who attended Springfield Public Schools, Hatchett will bring nearly 50 years of rich, practical experience in the architecture field to the after-school program. He has worked on numerous projects throughout the city, including building new schools and libraries, renovating buildings, creating parks, reconstructing dams, and more.  

“I tell students you get to use your creativity. You don’t need to be a math major and you don’t have to be an artist to be a great architect—you just have to be willing to work hard. That's the key,” Hatchett explains. “The rest of that stuff comes. You learn it, you get trained. Architecture is a vast field with different paths that, when done properly, has a better effect on society, on people.” 

Workshops like this are familiar to Hatchett, who previously collaborated with the UMass Amherst Department of Architecture to create similar programs, both for high school and college students.  

Together with Department of Architecture Chair Stephen Schreiber, Hatchett also created an architecture workshop for graduate students, which was held at Dunbar Community Center and ran for several years. It even resulted in one of their Central High School students, Opalia Meade, ultimately enrolling at UMass Amherst, studying architecture, and developing her own social justice-centered architecture business called Designing in Color.

UMass Architecture is also partnering with Digital Ready, a Boston-based non-profit that builds pathways between high schools and Boston’s job market for underrepresented students. A dozen high school students are enrolled in a yearlong architecture studio, taught by two UMass Amherst alumni. 

“This works. In incremental steps, it does work,” Hatchett says. “When I came up in high school, I hadn’t met any Black architects. It wasn’t until after I got out of college that I did. . . . We want to make sure we open the field of architecture and the construction industry as a whole. Hopefully it will make a difference to these students to know that this career is possible for them.”