Landscape architecture program inspires local teens

Mané Mehrabyan
Mané Mehrabyan ’17, center, in a studio with DesignTeach founders Roana Tirado and Jesse Nicholson, both graduate students at Cornell.

Mané Mehrabyan ’17 is a choreographer, but the movements she orchestrates do not come from her legs or arms – the landscape architecture major has been applying her creative talents to shape the environment around her, inspired by a unique Cornell program she attended while at Ithaca High School.

Founded in 2011 by three graduate students – Travis North, Jesse Nicholson and Roana Tirado – DesignTeach is a youth outreach program that introduces teenagers to the concepts and skills of landscape architecture through hands-on workshops and one-on-one mentorships.

It has provided roughly 630 hours of instruction to local middle and high school students, and the American Society of Landscape Architects recently honored it with a 2013 Student Award for community service.

Students enrolled in the program get highly coveted guest space in the department’s fourth-floor studio, where they participate in skill-building lessons – sketching, photo collage, drafting, plant selection, modeling – as well as lectures and critiques. They also get their own real-world project that covers on-site analysis, concept development and design, and that concludes with a presentation to a panel of landscape architecture students and professors.

“The nature of design is very different from what most high school students experience,” North said. “We say: ‘Here’s a site, you tell me what you want to do with it, how you are going to do it, and what you want to accomplish.’ For a lot of students, that’s something different and empowering, to have the responsibility shifted to them.”

Mehrabyan said the experience was transformative and fully cemented her ambition to pursue a career in the field, an idea she was only toying with when she was first exposed to landscape architecture during a field trip organized by Learning Web, an Ithaca educational nonprofit. Other students are introduced to DesignTeach through the Ithaca Youth Bureau, the PEEPS backyard sustainability project at Plantations and the New Visions Program, which facilitates internship placements across Cornell.

Her main project involved creating designs for Fall Creek Elementary School, which required individual and collaborative work with two other DesignTeach students. Mehrabyan said the practical skills she acquired gave her a leg up when she started classes as a Cornell freshman, but the soft skills she gained were just as important.

“Being in the studio environment was fantastic. It is so vibrant,” Mehrabyan said. “I’m so lucky that I got to experience it while I was in high school. It changed the way I saw adults and how I communicated with them. I had to be more open to challenges and critique. I developed a tougher skin, and I think that really helped me with high school.”

For Mehrabyan, landscape architecture is a way to meld many of her interests: people, nature and creativity.

“There’s always a dialogue between nature and humans, and as landscape architects, we are the intermediaries – we choreograph movements so that we can bring the two together,” Mehrabyan said. “Once I understood that, it really opened my eyes. Everywhere I go, I’m walking through a creative process. How pedestrians move through space is like another form of dance. I love observing how our environment influences our behavior.”

For North, the inspiration has been reciprocal.

“I think it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done up here,” he said. “DesignTeach has grown beyond its original mission. It is no longer just about introducing kids to landscape architecture. It’s about mentoring kids through design and providing access to a collegiate environment.”

Stacey Shackford is staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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