Olivia Obineme

In 2021, Tarik El-Naggar, AIA, led students at Valparaiso High School in Valparaiso, Ind., his alma mater, to victory at the Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition— they won every award. El-Naggar, who also owns his own firm, has been teaching at the school since 2012, employing a curriculum that he had formerly used teaching college students. We chatted with him about molding the next generation of architecture students.

I was an architect for a very long time and did a lot of town planning. When I started at Valparaiso High School in Indiana, I used a lot of what I had been doing while teaching at the university level. I came up with a curriculum designed to prepare high school students for their first and second years of college in both architecture and engineering. While I was doing that, Project Lead The Way [a nonprofit that provides a K-12 STEM curriculum] started becoming more prominent, and I looked at its framework and migrated it in. What I teach now is a combination of Project Lead The Way's civil engineering and architecture course and its general engineering classes along with my experience from 40 years as an architect and town planner. That’s how it came to be.

The first thing I did when I started was establish this principle: “I’m going to treat my students like college students.” I start off by teaching design theory: “What’s an axis and how does it reach across space? And how do walls layer? They’re not just static.” I start teaching them these and other concepts to help them see architecture as a series of elements, similar to [Christopher] Alexander’s A Pattern Language. We create a vocabulary, and once they have those tools, they really start talking about architecture. I get them to that level, and then we jump into Revit and from that point on, I can’t hold them back; they just start running. From there, we do some basic design exercises, like a narrow New Orleans-style shotgun house. Lots of parameters, but lots of freedom to do what they want. Then we start the competition. Once they start, I can’t get them out of the studio. I’m there over spring break, I’m there on weekends because they don’t want to leave. That’s how it happens. They become passionate about their designs and the process of problem solving, and I hope my passion is infectious.

To date, all of my students, every single one who has applied to architecture school, have been accepted. Not one has been turned down. Additionally, I’m not only teaching the basic tools of architecture, I also include modules on biophilic design, ethics in architecture, and the environmental side of sustainability. I think that architects have to be sensitive to the context beyond their site and understand the socioeconomic impact of a building a block away, two blocks away, and within a five-minute walk. As an example, I love the micro-projects that the Savannah College of Art and Design is doing, like the one a few years ago where they put small apartments in abandoned parking garages. That’s the kind of stuff I would love our high school students to play with in the future—they would come up with ideas that most of us wouldn’t even think of because they’re still fresh. — As told to Katherine Flynn