Making It: Gen Z learns by doing

Born between 1997-2010, Gen Z are digital natives who are starting their college careers. From TikTok videos to rapid prototyping, Gen Z learns by doing. This fundamental shift in learning style will have an impact on higher-education space planning. Reflecting on my experience as both a student and instructor, I have observed that design schools may provide a road map to preparing your campus for the maker generation.

A design education is one of discovery, where a “learn by doing” pedagogy has been used for over a century. Students learn through mock projects and apply their knowledge to new typologies. Specifically, architecture schools have been using experiential learning and apprentice learning models since the profession’s inception. The first-year introduction to wood shop leads to a legacy of making, capped by a 3D printed thesis model. Thanks to digital technology readily available through their phones, Zs are coming to campus as creators, ready for hands-on learning. Space planning is critical, whether they’re studying architecture, engineering, business, or biology.

Architecture schools have long been based around a few fundamental space planning priorities. These can inform other disciplines when planning for Generation Z:

  • An Open Studio
  • Immediate Access to Technology
  • This Mess is a Place
  • Craft of Place

An Open Studio: When I visited Cowgill Hall at Virginia Tech as a high schooler, I was taken by the sheer quantity of stuff being made by students. The studio’s vibrancy and intensity were palpable. And when I later attended architecture school there, my own desk was a showcase of my successes…and failures. First years like me worked side-by-side with upper-class students, allowing us to energize, inspire, and teach each other.

Educational spaces—from libraries to labs—that are closed off and compartmentalized, could present barriers for how Gen Z’s naturally learn. They’ve grown up observing and learning from each other (“show me how you added those GIFs to your Instagram story”) so why should this stop when they get to college? Why put a barrier between a biomedical student and an engineering student? It’s time to investigate how to mix disciplines. Science and engineering labs should be open, vibrant places that encourage the sharing of ideas and continual feedback. And while world-changing ideas grow in labs, they’re born over coffee. Common spaces where students can relax and free-associate (with a venti mocha or flavored sparkling water) are integral to the mix.

Immediate Access to Technology: Zs are the On-Demand generation. They’ve been raised on a steady diet of instant messaging and same-day delivery. The coming of 5G technology promises to further erode any lingering barriers to information. Research shows that 33% of Zs watch lessons online, from craft projects to algebra tutorials. Educational apps are almost 10% of all downloads from iTunes.*

Architecture schools have traditionally been early adopters when it comes to technology like 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) fabrication. The most successful A-schools put technology—3D pens, model making supplies, and 3D printers— within easy reach of students. But architecture students also often declare they learned more outside of class time, when they’re able to explore and test these tools on their own and with peers. This will likely be true for Zs too: Residence hall room or classroom, wood shop to lab bench, technology will need to be pervasive, accessible, open late, and simple to use.

Architecture programs aren’t the only ones tapping into Generation Z’s desire for hands on learning: in many cases, engineering and design schools are putting maker culture even more central to the curriculum. At the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University, visitors walk above the open working studio immediately adjacent to the entry vestibule. Students are encouraged to immerse themselves in making and it is celebrated as the heart of the building and thus the heart of the curriculum.

At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tech Spark engineering makerspace inside Hamerschlag Hall, students use 3D printers in an additive lab to do what the human hand alone can’t do. Here, freshmen and graduate level researchers work in the open studios that support intense individual focus and create opportunity for purposeful interaction and serendipitous collaboration.

This Mess is a Place: Architecture schools inherently embrace messiness. Students are encouraged to make, break, and remake prototypes in order to learn. At the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture (where I teach) the greatest battle may be the end year studio clean up. Students feel ownership of their mess and disposing of things can be emotionally difficult.

Other disciplines could learn from this quirky quality of embracing messiness, but it must be planned for. Makerspaces often have lockers and storage rooms where unfinished work can be kept out of sight, but in the process of hiding mess ownership is lost. Gen Z are makers and making is messy; students need to feel they own a space, in all its glorious grit.

Craft of Place: Space shapes behavior. If you want students to aspire to the highest levels of their discipline, the buildings where they spend their time should do more than inspire, they should teach. Examples of design innovation are always at hand in a thoughtfully crafted building. Its design and construction send a strong message to prospective students and faculty about the value of the work going on within it. At the University of Virginia, the goal of the dean and faculty was for additions to the architecture school to be pedagogical resources for students by embracing building traditions, precise craft, local materials, and technology in design.

Generation Z represents a marked shift from Millennials – they learn, behave, and interact differently from the generations before them. They are cautiously optimistic tinkerers who learn by doing and seek knowledge quickly through digital forums and their immediate surroundings. Architecture schools may provide a blueprint for how to engage the active learners arriving on your campus.

Architecture school is the prime of a young designer’s creativity. Ideas are wild, theory abounds, and possibilities are endless. Students learn by making, testing, building, and rebuilding. Gen Z students crave this learning model, not just in architecture but in many science and engineering based disciplines. Gen Z doesn’t want to sit in a lecture hall while a professor clicks through 100 slides. The desire for experiential learning is not a fad, but the dawn of a new paradigm. Higher education will need to adapt space to 21st century learning.

*The Everything Guide to Generation Z,

Matthew Plecity is an associate principal at GBBN and an adjunct faculty member in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.  He’ll be presenting “Net Zero Energy with Modular Construction On a Pittsburgh Riverfront Industrial Site” about his work with Tree Pittsburgh at the International Living Future Institute Conference on May 7, 2020 in Seattle. Read more about his work, including Federal House at Penn State Behrend and the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

You can also read this piece on BD+C.