September 2017

Teaching Students to Think by Creating

Climate Change as a Challenge Calling for Action 


Catherine Page Harris


I enjoin students to begin the process of learning by making. I usually mention the analogy of Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus and the observation that if you aren’t an Olympian god, likely you aren’t going to be able to pull off that kind of (pro) creation.


I think we all share a basic fear of having to see our mistakes. Yet, those mistakes and sketches and half-baked ideas are the stuff that moves us forward. Sometimes, I will sit down and try to offer the internal dialog that goes with my own process of making and designing. It’s just an example of how I can’t see the intersections or the curves, or the topography until I draw them. Once drawn, they are part of my information. Not drawn, not modeled, not sculpted, not rendered in the computer, I have no way to decide if any of these decisions are good or bad.


We tend to want to be able to abstractly say whether something is worth effort or not. This summer, a student asked me to judge his abstract idea about proportion before any drawings had been made. But I really have no idea how something is going to work out unless it is drawn or modeled. And we resist time, effort and the pain of mistake-making.


The corollary to the above is, “If you look at your work and you don’t like it, you can always change it.” There is always a moment when what you are making is the worst thing you have ever made in your life and your work is to improve it. This goes for any drawing, any design, any physical manifestation. Our work is not to know immediately what is right, it is to identify processes and tools that can help lead us to what fits.


What does this have to do with climate change and off-the-grid sustainable communities? Or academia and Native design?


Climate change calls for multiple scales of human behavior change. As a designer and artist, I have become a believer in changing actions by offering infrastructures. Scale of participation is often about ease. My students learn to prototype, model and design through physical engagement with analog and digital technologies. This fall I am leading an off-the-grid sustainable community studio in Landscape Architecture with Dr. Mark Stone from Civil Engineering in collaboration with the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at UNM led by Dr. Ted Jojola and Michaela Shirley. The Landscape Architecture students are graduate students in their third semester of the Masters of Landscape Architecture program. The studio focuses on regional context and systemsin particular complex adaptive systems.


The project is to propose a sustainable community design for a group of about 20-25 families who currently live in an area heavily contaminated by uranium tailings. The EPA endeavors to remediate the site, though the remediation is largely just scraping the ground and piling the tailings slightly farther from the existing houses. They are also planning to move one tailings pile to a site down-watershed from the tribe’s current housing. Another tailings pile is currently without an owner and thus has just had some surface erosion treatment. It is not likely to be removed.  


The community has some reparation money and hopes to move to a mesa area that historically was a summer grazing ground. There are no longer sheep grazing among the community due to poor health and lack of reproduction of the sheep, which the community blames on radiation from the tailings. They hope to regain the culture and economic engine of grazing by moving to the mesa.  


The mesa itself has no electricity and no water infrastructure. Students will split into four groups to research and design an off-the-grid settlement. Potential technologies include rainwater harvesting, solar collection, wind generation, alternative sewage treatment, passive solar placement, density and construction of buildings. We will be creating energy and water budgets to understand how much rainwater collection can do for them, how much renewable energy can be generated and what kinds of living conditions would be possible in an off-the-grid situation. We will also be creating beautiful designs working with Navajo design principles.


The studio will produce a book for the Red Water Pond Community of design solutions. We also will create a physical model they can share with visitors and a virtual model that can be shared across the world. The process of making informs this work and this work is the daily incremental shifts that will resist the narrative of bigger is better, which has led us to the irreversible effects of climate change.


Catherine Page Harris, MLA, MFA, is assistant professor of Landscape Architecture and Art and Ecology at the University of New Mexico.




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