George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Build SF Institute's School-to-Career Program

Architectural projects and internships integrate real-life math, science, design, and technology skills for San Francisco high school students. More to this story.
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Narrator: It's the end of the regular school day for Justin Marks.

Did you turn in that assignment?


Me too.

Narrator: And it's only twelve o'clock. A senior at San Francisco's School of the Arts, Marks has one hour to grab lunch and drive from his high school campus to a downtown office, where he'll spend the rest of his learning day as an intern at one of the city's top architectural firms.

We did a walkthrough at the base of clock tower to find out--

Justin: I'm pretty much an assistant architect, like I get to see everything an architect has to do, has to go through, has to deal with, and it's school. I go there and I just learn tons.

Narrator: Marks works here twice a week and spends his other three weekday afternoons at the Build San Francisco Institute, a small school created by the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, in partnership with the city's unified school district.

Frank: What we've targeted are students who have not done well in school and we want them to finish and we want to give them a reason for finishing, and hopefully along the way, for them to see that there's career opportunities for them beyond getting their high school diploma.

Narrator: Students from high schools all over the city arrive at this Market Street office space and spend the next three hours immersed in projects that satisfy core curriculum objectives in integrated studies, fine arts and math.


Diameter, nine in diameter.

Narrator: And there's a night and day difference between what goes on here and what usually goes on at the schools they come from.

Will: In a traditional math class, they begin with a textbook. They have the students open to the page for the day. They might be working on something like perimeter or area or volume. If I were the teacher, I would stand in front of the class, teach all thirty students this one concept at one time. I'd write things on the board, work out a few sample problems and then send the students home, and they would either get it or not, and then they'd move on. Here, we do design challenges where students actually apply the mathematics in a real world problem. This particular problem was to design a million dollar condominium using San Francisco housing costs, which are eight hundred dollars a square foot. From there, it becomes a very challenging process to develop a three bedroom condominium. Working with the mathematics all the way, scale, proportion, area, volume, applying the knowledge rather than just working it through once on a set of problems, and I think that's the road to mastery.

Casey: We're gonna have to fix this somehow. We're probably gonna have to take this wall out and do it again.

Will: And there's no room for C plus work. If you're going to build a building in San Francisco, everything has to be pretty tight, so they understand that we don't accept second rate work here, because we know that they're not going to be doing that in the real world, so why start them with the sense that they can get by?

It has to be done, why?

Because people are gonna live there.

Narrator: Fowler and teacher Casey Brennan carefully review the curriculum standards for the math and fine arts courses they will teach.

Casey: Students analyze issues of international trade and explain--

Narrator: Then they design projects that engage their students in mastering the subject.

Casey: You don't have to scrap the design, 'cause the design is beautiful, but what you need to do is rescale it so that it stays within those parameters.

I don't stand in front of the kids and say, "This is how you're going to learn today." I mean, they do have an agenda every day. They know what the objectives are, but they do the investigating. I give them the materials, and they do the research. They do the uncovering of their own curriculum, and the kids take ownership of their education and it becomes more meaningful to them.

Narrator: Before any major project is undertaken, students complete small projects like a PowerPoint presentation on various architectural styles.

Mikalynn: You get to learn about architecture. You get to learn like more sharpen up your skills on like algebra, you know, 'cause like I'm in geometry now, so like you can forget some of those little things, so it helps you like remember and like keep ahead.

Narrator: For their second major project, students had to create a performance space on a three thousand square foot lot.

Casey: So first they sketch out a blueprint. From that, based on their design and the specs, they take it to Autodesk Revit.

Student: This is what my model looks like when it's in three D. I have a fireman's pole in case kids wanna slide down.

Casey: It's incredible design software. They're able to unfold their blueprint into a three dimensional object that meets all the specifications of their design.

Mikalynn: So right here is where I did my internet cafe and I decided to make half of it a sunroom. So since the sun moves in a southward direction, so I decided to put it there so that there would be more sunlight during most of the day.

Where was your plumbing setup?

Casey: I mean, technically, they could take a design that they've created and print it out and actually present it to a developer.

The first step is to sketch everything out.

Narrator: Brennan grades students on a rubric that includes design, creativity, presentation skills and peer review, and she makes the grading process transparent.

Casey: Kids should know what they're being graded on. Kids should know from the very beginning what the objectives are and what the expectation are. Those should be clearly communicated and understood. And after that if, you know, it's done right, then students can say, "Okay, these are all of the areas in which I succeeded or I need improvement," and that should be a no brainer.

Narrator: Seniors at the institute took part in a public art project, installing ceramic tiles depicting historic vessels as part of a peer restoration project for the port of San Francisco.

Justin: This model I made in Three D Studio Max and basically, it's just a little diagram of the peer. I showed it to the Port of San Francisco, they really liked it, and it turns out that they kinda use railings that look kinda like this.

Narrator: Marks acted as project manager for the art project. He sees a vast difference between learning here and what goes on in the school he comes from each day.

Justin: Difference is, we all sit there and the work you have to do is just in a textbook. You're not allowed to get up. You're not free, you're just stuck there in your uncomfortable desk. Here, everybody has more of a positive attitude. Everybody works together, pretty much.

The earlier design had a very clear pattern system.

Narrator: Twice a week, seniors spend the afternoon in internships at major architectural firms in the city.

Man: We have, you know, all these digital photographs, so we can verify our drawing and actually fill in the missing parts--

Justin: It definitely gives you a motivation. You're doing something different. It just gives you a positive effect really, just doing something that you enjoy.

Narrator: Architect Richard Hannum created the internship program that became the Build San Francisco Institute. He saw the value of working outside the system when he became disenchanted with his own son's public high school experience.

Richard: One Friday, I went into my son's school and pointed out that he wouldn't be there on Monday, and after a few moments, they realized that I meant not just Monday, but any Monday and that was it, and we walked out. And I started homeschooling James, my wife and I decided to do that, and we didn't really actually know what that meant. What we found, what we discovered was as soon as we were away from the system, as it was then postulated, we found all these extremely interesting, highly educated people with very creative ideas about education, with no limitations.

Man: Right now, we have this module here, for example, and this is a balcony and this is a window.

Richard: We created our own school. We have several students that we simply took out of other places and had come to our office and it's a school.

Narrator: Hannum's mentoring concept, with the school district's backing, has created a model for other PBL initiatives that could dramatically change the way young people learn.

Richard: If you find the current situation to be unacceptable intellectually, with what we're doing with children as a nation, then you have to actively make change. And to have found something that has the level of impact that this has on children, that's really so easy to do, is fantastic.

Mark where it's going to be.

Will: We know this works first by the reaction from the students. We get feedback from the mentors on the growth that they see the students working in their firms, and we're starting to get feedback from test scores. This is only our second year, but we're starting to see that the students are having a higher success rate in high school, because they go back to their high schools energized.

Richard: Every time we start a session, I get frustrated because, you know, they're just not gonna make it and this group's different than the last group. And for me, my moment is six weeks in, when all of a sudden, they gel up again and off they go. And it's like another group of great kids who are no longer going to see education the same way again.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Rick Greenwell
  • Caven Keith


  • Naheed Attari

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John Sole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To see tightly edited video examples of real students doing real projects in and out of real classrooms, please visit: This far, I have about 15 videos of between 3 and 9 minutes on my blog, many of which depict students conducting architecture projects.

DanielG's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a fascinating video. It's great to see how people are innovatively integrating the arts into school curricula.

alex's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a fascinating video. It's great to see how people are innovatively integrating the arts into school curricula.

Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The East Coast is so fortunate to have Casey Brennan back. Casey is a superior educator who is changing the lives of the people/students that surround her....Sorry about your loss SF..

Barb Garza's picture
Barb Garza
8th Grade Science, IL

AWESOME!!! What a brilliant opportunity for the community and their students!

Jennifer Poole's picture

What a way to respect these young people and to give them real opportunities to apply/use what they are required to learn!

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