Building the future: the Alberti Program
Few students at Washington University are children, but we depend on resources like the Writing Center and Student Financial Services. Unfortunately, children of the poorer St. Louis school districts lack access to an adequate education. The Alberti Program, the charity for this year’s Bauhaus, strives to provide economically underprivileged students with instruction in creative thinking and environmental sensitivity. Dozens of volunteers collaborate to frame a learning environment focused on the unique needs of students. The Alberti Program is no ordinary charity; it’s a labor of love.
The program’s plinth, Senior Lecturer Gay Lorberbaum, described Alberti’s history.
“Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture, immediately launched the program after his arrival here five years ago. Dean Lindsey wanted to bring kids from the city here for free to learn about architecture and design. He asked me pretty quickly if I would take charge,” Lorberbaum said. Lindsey named the program for Leon Battista Alberti, a Renaissance architect.
Despite some initial hitches, both Lindsey and Lorberbaum were committed to Alberti’s success. “The Friday before the Monday we were going to start, I got a call from the superintendent [of the district we were helping] saying that instead of 20 children coming, we were only going to have seven,” Lorberbaum said. “That next day, Dean Lindsey was coming back from a trip to San Francisco for the University. I met him at the airport and told him what had happened. And he said ‘Gay, we’re going to start no matter what.’ And at that moment I knew that he was not initiating this program for any but the most honest reasons. He genuinely wants to help these kids.”
The plight of public schools has been the Alberti Program’s concern from its first blueprint. Lorberbaum noted some deficiencies in public education. “[There are] kids with asbestos poisoning or mothers on crack,” she said. “I’m not exaggerating. Public schools have less money in their budgets. There are all these kids who are really bright. I’ve never met a kid who isn’t bright. Never.”
“And I’ve worked with more kids than most people on this campus,” Lorberbaum continued. “I decided in the beginning to work with the Wellston School District. It’s one of the most in-need school districts given the level of income of the students.”
The Alberti Program has grown in the last five years to serve more districts.
“We have children coming from over nearly 25 schools. I’ve been slowly meeting principals and learning about more and more schools in the city. We have nearly a hundred in the program today,” Lorberbaum said. Participants meet on Saturdays during the school year and throughout June. In addition to Lorberbaum, students in the University’s College of Architecture serve as instructors for the children.
Lorberbaum sketches each session’s curriculum with great care. The day begins with a lecture from a local expert. “I’ll call on anyone in the University or the city, and everyone has always said yes,” she said. “As I develop the day’s curriculum, I decide whether I want an architect, an engineer, someone from biology.”
These lecturers have ranged from ecologists to social workers. “The lectures have 19 college students sitting in the audience, the Alberti instructors. Those lectures are geared for them. The lecturers are told to not dumb down, but for 40 minutes, you see a hundred kids attentive. That’s pretty incredible,” Lorberbaum said.
The students seem to revel in their projects. When I arrived, they were arched over in thought, designing structures that could support a team of underwater excavators. One of the instructors, sophomore Grant McCracken, remarked about the variety of approaches the students employed.
“It’s a diverse studio environment in which kids feed off each other,” he said. “They get at a new project with a lot of enthusiasm, which you see in the lecture. How they attack the project varies, but there’s so much enthusiasm.”
Alberti’s attention to each child’s needs allows for this enthusiasm. Lorberbaum stressed that every student has a unique learning style.
“The student-teacher ratios are so good; we can understand it is best for some children to go to the library first and read about a lot of examples. It’s better for the kinesthetic learners to start right away. There are seven or eight ways for starting off,” Lorberbaum said. “All the instructors are sensitive to how each of the kids begin.”
The Alberti program endorses lateral thinking—an indirect, creative approach to learning.
“[In lateral thinking] we first come up with a really important question that’s worth our time investigating and consider a number of variables and sub-questions. We study the question with a model, perhaps a literal 3D model, or a piece of writing. Then we either change the scale or the variables,” Lorberbaum said. “So I might look at how eyes read words, and then I might look at a full anatomical model of a eye. We have to in a few hours come up with an idea to answer that question.”
Testimony from the students suggests the program’s approach is successfully molding thinkers. Anastasia Roth, 13, commented that she liked trying to “build indoor/outdoor spaces so that you have a space that transitions from one to another.” Maya Jones, 12, spoke about “finding new ways to build old structures, especially ways to make them green. We need to stop polluting the environment.” Both students said the Alberti Program inspired them to learn more about design in future classes in high school. Maya said that the instructors “are very good at explaining things we don’t understand at first. They help us find new ways to solve the problems we’re facing.”
Despite its results, the Alberti Program needs continued support. The program has no budget; apart from space, the University provides nothing. Local businesses have been the pillars of the Alberti Program. Lorberbaum noted the frequent contributions of Artmart. “We only use recycled materials—we have no money—so I call Artmart once a week. They save all their matte board or any material they’re going to throw away.”
Bon Appétit used to provide lunches during the summer, thanks to Resident District Manager Nadeem Siddiqui, but a corporate decision shut down Siddiqui’s generosity. For the future, Lorberbaum hopes to help even more local children. “The press mostly writes about what’s wrong with schools. But there are bright kids with difficult lives. Alberti is an answer to that. As it is, it’s not fair; we have no bus money; it’s only for kids who can get here somehow,” she said.
Hopefully, they will. Maya certainly wants the Alberti Program to continue. “I’d be very mad [if Alberti stopped], because I want to someday become an architect,” she said.