An Interview with Andrew Costanzo - Outreach Programs Manager for the National Building Museum

Thomas: Good morning Andrew. Thanks for joining me. We’re very excited to speak with you today.

Andrew: It's my pleasure. Thank you for taking time to talk about what we do here at the National Building Museum.

T: There is so much to say about the National Building Museum. I don't even know where to start. Let's just start by getting to know you. Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do for the National Building Museum?

Andrew: Sure. I oversee all the teen initiatives here at the National Building Museum, which I'll explain more about in a second. I have been here at the museum for five years in various capacities working with our teen audience and have really loved the opportunity. In terms of my background, it’s all over the place: I have an undergraduate degree in classics and classical language, some dabbling in art history, and a master's degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University.

This is why I really love the cross disciplinary nature of our programs.

T: A few of our writers are in the Museum Studies program at GW.

Andrew: Yeah, it is a great program. It really gave me a chance to think about what I believe museums should be and do during my time there.

T: Do you think your background in classics prepared you for this career?

Andrew: It's funny, I was recently asked by my undergrad to come back and talk about the connection between my degree and my current position. So, I've been thinking about that. I think ultimately my time as a classics major was my first true engagement with museums and thinking about the stories that objects can tell. We have literature and the like from ancient times, but to find out what really happened and how people actually lived you have to interpret and piece it together. I went on field trips as a kid, but it was during college that I really became interested in museums and how they shape our perception of the world.

T: That's really interesting, it's not too far off from Art History. I think it's a good ingredient for teen programs? Taking an educational outreach program that includes art, architecture, engineering, design and having it all wrapped up neatly by a classics major who understands the formalcy it all requires. I love it! Can you tell us more about your programs?

CityVision student practices cutting foam core to make a model. Photo credit: Museum Staff CityVision student practices cutting foam core to make a model.
Photo credit: Museum Staff

Andrew: All of our programs use design as a framework to teach teens how to look at the world around them and look for ways to change the work around them. We want them to take the skills they learn here and apply them to their communities, schools, their homes, or even their homework. Ultimately, we want to encourage creative thinking as a means to help our teens become problem solvers.

We do that through a few different programs.

CityVision is an urban planning and architecture-based program for D.C. public and public charter middle school students. It is standards-driven and tied into the school day for our participants. The students are given a development plot in the city and have to determine the best way to improve that area through design. We teach them the fundamentals of design, like scale and technical drawing. They then explore their development site, sketch and conduct interviews, and finally work together to decide what they would add to the city. The program culminates in a formal presentation and defense of their plans to the public.

T: Do their classroom teachers head the project? Can you tell us the names of a couple of those schools?

Andrew: There are school representatives who join them, but the main teachers are part time staff people and myself, and a corps of volunteers who are in various design professions. It's a fairly unique program in D.C. since it allows mentorship opportunities for local youth to learn about design careers. In fact, all of our programs rely on the great group of volunteers to help guide and mentor the teens.

Our longest term partners have been Takoma Education Campus, Raymond Education Campus, Stuart-Hobson Middle School and Browne Education Campus. We work with 2 - 3 schools each semester.

T: Wow, that's great! I'm excited to hear you're working with DCPS.

Andrew: Yeah, I have really loved developing longer-term relationships with schools. You get to see whole families come through your programs, which is just amazing. Siblings hear about the programs from older brothers and sisters and then you get to see them all at final presentations. It’s a nice sense of continuity.

Another program we run is the Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP).

Design Apprenticeship Program participant cuts materials on a chop saw. Photo credit: Museum Staff Design Apprenticeship Program team presents their large scale prototype for a seating solution. Photo credit: Museum Staff
Right: Design Apprenticeship Program participant cuts materials on a chop saw.
Left: Design Apprenticeship Program team presents their large scale prototype for a seating solution.
Photo credit: Museum Staff.

T: Do tell.

Andrew: It's a Saturday design-build format that teaches teens about hands-on construction and fabrication, and how to construct a solution to a design challenge. In the fall we run an introductory "DAP I" for newcomers and focus on building a seating solution (chair, bench, whatever) as a way to discuss design basics. Teens who are interested can go on to "DAP II" which is more advanced and allows them to refine their design skills. It is also a client-based semester, so the teens are designing something that will actually be used and in the community. This past spring they built furniture for families in the Transitional Housing Corporation's transitional housing program. The families get an apartment for two years that is furnished by volunteer organizations. Our teens built one piece of furniture for five families that they will get to keep after they move out of the apartment.

So, the kids in this program really immediately get to see the impact they can have and the impact that good design can have in solving problems.

We've also built puppet theaters for a Head Start class, interactive kiosks for the museum itself, and prototype discovery carts for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

T: That is so amazing, so hands-on. What makes the National Building Museum so effective are these programs. I've never heard of another museum that includes SO MUCH to do.

Andrew: Well CityVision was founded in 1993, so the museum collectively has 20 years of experience of reaching out to a teen audience. It has just grown organically as resources and needs arose, to be honest. My colleague and I stand on the shoulders of giants.

CityVision participants work on design plans. Photo credit: Museum Staff CityVision participants work on design plans.
Photo credit: Museum Staff

T: How can you market all that you offer? I know you all have an established reputation, but it still seems challenging to keep the students coming in.

Andrew: Teens are extraordinarily busy these days, it's true. Between after school activities, increased testing, college and SAT prep, there are just a lot of conflicting priorities. We are ultimately only working with about 30-35 participants per program per semester, so it is still a relatively small number in terms of quantity. But we are really focused on the depth of our relationships with our participants and really getting to know them over a semester or over multiple years for some. Our programs can build on each other and you can start in 6th grade in CItyVision and graduate out of high school still doing the Design Apprenticeship Program.

I also think that the hands-on nature is really important and a draw to teens. We offer a chance to really dive into design and get your hands dirty, so to speak, while learning from professionals and people who do this every day.

T: The low number of students really present a great opportunity though. Sometimes it’s hard due to grant requirements, but if you can sustain programming regardless of numbers, it's a great opportunity to delve deeper into your content.

Andrew: One of the biggest challenges we have actually is incorporating technology more into our programs. And that is mainly due to resources, both financial and time. It takes time for us to learn what is out there and what would be useful to include in our programs. So, while we have social media accounts and all that, these programs really are a chance to learn about hands on skills like construction, model making, exhibit design, etc.

T: The lack of technology is an asset? Is that what you mean? I think it could be.

Andrew: I think it is more that we have to make it work, and that we realize that we have an opportunity to offer something a little different. We would love to incorporate more tech, like Arduinos or 3-D printers, but learning how to use that effectively takes time. So we do it piecemeal until we can find funding.

T: Sure that makes sense. I think it's important though that the students are using their entire hand and not just the thumbs.

Andrew: Ha, right. As long as they are being safe while using X-Acto blades and power tools and don’t cut that hand.

T: You want to tell us about your recent national achievement?

Andrew: Of course. That leads nicely into Investigating Where We Live (IWWL), our summer photography and exhibit design program.

IWWL very literally uses the lens of a camera to get teens to look more closely at D.C. and what is happening in the city. We usually will select a neighborhood that teams of teens explore through photos, writing, interviews and art. They then have to work together to find the story they want to tell about that neighborhood and figure out a way to communicate it in a 3-D way on our gallery walls. The exhibit runs for ten to 11 months and has over 25,000 visitors see it. It’s a really neat opportunity for teens to have their work on display in a museum. This summer’s exhibition, Recapturing Shaw’s Legacy, gave us the opportunity to explore one of the many historically important neighborhoods in the city and see how its past has impacted its present and future. We formed great partnerships with the National Park Service and the Historical Society of Washington to help our participants understand the neighborhood and how it used to be. That helped inform their understanding of Shaw and its current development.

IWWL received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, which is awarded by the Presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities. It is an incredible honor that recognizes the great work that the museum and the other awardees have been doing in really engaging youth in the arts and in making the next generation of creative thinkers and engaged citizens.

T: Some very distinguished committee members. Arne Duncan, John Kerry, Chuck Close, Gottlieb, Yo-Yo Ma….FOREST WHITAKER!!

Andrew: Yes, it was surreal to be in the receptions and see Chuck Close and Kalpen Suresh Modi and other famous people. But really it was great to be surrounded by people who "get it." It could become a mutual appreciation brigade, but I think it is important that we recognize at the highest level of our government the importance of the arts and design and what they contribute to successful education for youth. This event really does celebrate the arts and humanities and their importance in our everyday lives.

It was also really amazing to hug Michelle Obama.

T: I think that's what's important about this interview is showing our readers that the work you do in museums has a profound impact throughout the entire spectrum, from student to the President. There are people at every level of our statusphere that appreciate this work.

Teen Council touring a local architecture school. Photo credit: Museum Staff Teen Council member learning about SketchUp in a portfolio workshop. Photo credit: Museum Staff

Left: Teen Council touring a local architecture school. Right: Teen Council member learning about SketchUp in a portfolio workshop.
Photo credit: Museum Staff

Andrew: Our final and most recent opportunity for teens is our Teen Council. It is about four years old at this point, and is an additional leadership and advisory opportunity for participants who have been with us for a longer period of time. Teen Council members have to have done at least two of our programs (or two semesters) to join. This group has grown pretty dramatically over the past year. We have about 20 active members who recently voted on their first co- chairs. We hold workshops and professional development opportunities, take field trips, and provide them chances to volunteer and engage with the museum more deeply. It’s been another great way to continue to develop our relationships with some cool teens who really love the museum and hanging out with each other.

Design Apprenticeship Program team poses with the furniture they designed for a family in transitional housing. Photo credit: Museum Staff Design Apprenticeship Program team poses with the furniture they designed for a family in transitional housing.
Photo credit: Museum Staff

T: Do your current and upcoming exhibitions play into your programs or are they separate? Do the two influence each other?

Andrew: We definitely use our exhibitions as platforms on which to build a variety of our educational offerings for all ages, not just teens. There are school programs and curriculum kits that take the themes of exhibitions and distill them to a 2-hour lesson or series of classroom activities. For our teen programming we use the exhibitions as expert knowledge to help our teens delve deeper into their own design process. For example we used our House and Home exhibition, which explores 400 years of domestic architecture, as a way to set the stage for the transitional housing project I mentioned for the Design Apprenticeship Program. We will be using the Designing for Disaster exhibit that is coming in 2014 as the basis for a project. We visit our exhibits in Investigating Where We Live in the summer to see what the teens think works or what they would improve for their own exhibit. Examples of models and drawings give context to our CityVision students as they produce their own design plans. So the museum building itself and the exhibits are some of the main teaching tools we have.

T: I'm glad you mentioned the Designing for Disaster. That was where I was going next. I think it's timely and perfect for teaching and learning in programs for teens.

Andrew: Yeah, it is going to be an amazing exhibit.

T: We all need to consider that reality and not ignore it.

Andrew: Especially since these teens will be the ones bearing the brunt of the consequences. Making sure they are informed or ready, even in some small way, is important.

Ultimately, that is what I see our role as. We may inspire some teens to become architects, engineers, or urban planners, and that is really important. But we also just want to inspire teens to be aware of their surroundings. Half of the world’s population lives in an urban environment, and that is growing. So it is crucial that we give people the vocabulary, both verbal and visual, that they need to function in this world. Tied closely with that is the new economy our teens are entering. Ideas and creativity. Collaboration. All of these things are what they will need in the future, and the earlier they start, the better. So all of our programs emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration, creativity and problem solving. All skills that will bear them in good stead in the future.

T: What are some goals you have for your programs? Where would you like to see them go? More students? More funding?

Andrew: Well, I think there are some logistical goals of reach and who is coming through our programs. We have an incredibly diverse group of teens, ethnically, geographically, socio-economically, racially, religiously, school type, you name it. But I always want to make sure that we are also reaching out and engaging teens who need more opportunities to be involved in the world around them. And that can be challenging for a variety of reasons. For example having students leave for a day of classes elsewhere if a school is under performing is a hard sell.

T: That is a hard sell and it's difficult to get them in on Saturdays too I imagine.

Andrew: Yes, it can be. But there is a certain amount of self-selection for all of our programs. So kids that sign on are predisposed to be there and be responsible. That doesn’t mean they will always be on time, but they will get there eventually ...

T: Punctuality: A battle, but not the war.

Andrew: But otherwise, I think we also want to start pulling together a broader group of teens who are engaged in design. My colleague and I are toying with the idea of a regional or national Teen Design Summit, or something along those lines, that would bring together a bunch of teens to discuss design and learn from one another.

T: I think you and the Building Museum could pull that together and I think teens would participate. There are kids out there ready to take things very seriously and providing that opportunity would be a great advantage to them.

Andrew: Yeah, people often undersell teens. They can do amazing things if provided the resources and the responsibility to do so.

T: You all don't seem to be underselling anyone, which I commend you for and by the looks of it, so do the president, an entire committee of professionals in our field, parents, and of course the students themselves. The Building Museum is such a special place and I can't think of a better environment for our students to flourish

Andrew: Thanks. It's an amazing job.

T: Well, here's to classic's majors creating excellent museum programs. I won't keep you any longer, you've been quite generous allowing us this time to chat.

Andrew: I appreciate the chance to share! Thanks so much for taking the time.

T: Thanks again Andrew and we'll hopefully cross paths soon.

Andrew: Yes, of course. If you are ever in D.C. and want to drop by, let me know. It was a pleasure talking to you.

T: I will! Same to you.


Thomas Canavan is the Founder and Executive Director of Museum Force.