When students at Berkeley’s REALM Charter School started their academic year today, there was a new creative space waiting for them at their campus on 8th Street, and a challenge: how might you get your hands dirty? Shortly after the semester kicks off, the students will spend a day and a half working on projects, either for the school or the local community, which they will dream up themselves, and then make.

The class is part of a course created by Studio H, a program run by Project H Design, a nonprofit that has brought its high school design/build curriculum to Berkeley after operating in North Carolina for two years. In a school that already puts an emphasis on technology, research and action, Studio H will be getting students involved in even more hands-on assignments. The projects aim to develop areas such as critical thinking, teamwork and citizenship, as well as practical skills such as construction and design.

“It’s project-based work on steroids,” says REALM’s Principal, Victor Diaz, who adds that when he first learned about Studio H, he knew they would make an excellent partner for the school. “We like to learn through doing,” he said.

REALM Charter School is at 2023 8th Street in Berkeley, part of the West Campus. Tracey Taylor

Emily Pilloton, co-founder of Project H with Matthew Miller, says the underlying concept of the program is to put design and architecture into practice on school campuses: whether that means students create a bus stop or a chicken coop, build a climbing wall, or map out a city block — all projects that have been tackled through the organization.

The key is that the ideas originate with the students. “The power of the program comes from the students’ response to context,” says Pilloton.

Pilloton is a designer who studied art and architecture at UC Berkeley and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Miller has designed and built houses and schools in Detroit and Uganda, has taught architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Cal.

Farmers’ Pavilion in Windsor, NC, designed and built by Studio H high school students. Photo: Studio H

As well as the “dirty hands” challenges that will happen on the quarter, REALM students are being offered two periods of a Studio H basic class which will include fabrication and digital design as well as making concrete public furniture. “We  are going to give the results to families and businesses around the area,” says Pilloton. “Then we’ll have one other period that is a year-long, advanced Studio H class where we’ll be working up to a full-scale architectural project for the surrounding community, probably looking at housing,” she says.

In Bertie County, North Carolina, junior-year students designed and built a pavilion to house a new farmers’ market in the town of Windsor, something of a fresh-food desert. The project enabled small rural roadside farm stand owners to gather in one sheltered community space, and it was embraced by the town and its Mayor.

REALM Charter, a BUSD-approved middle and high school, opened in Berkeley in 2011. It is housed in a newly renovated portion of the West Campus site, located at the corner of University Avenue and Bonar Street. At capacity, the middle school will serve 300 students, 100 per grade. The high school will serve 400. Diaz says currently 50-60% of the students are from Berkeley.

Project H is only the latest of many partnerships REALM has established to provide specialized programs for its students. Diaz says they work with Berkeley Youth Alternatives for health services and the UC Berkeley School of Welfare, as well as the L.A. based non-profit Game Desk and the K-12 Laboratory at Stanford.

For REALM students it’s been a jazzy summer [08.15.12]
Willard School will not be site for REALM Charter School [03.24.12]
Site decisions for Berkeley’s new charter schools [03.17.12]
A matter of principal: Meet Victor Diaz, head of Berkeley’s first charter schools [07.02.12]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...