Thursday, June 11, 2015

Architect students build outdoor classroom, playground

By Meg Whalen

To the adult eye, it might be a giant pumpkin or the crown of the “Queen City,” or — its original design inspiration — an apple. To the kindergartners at Chantilly Montessori School, the new structure on the playground suggests limitless possibility.

“We love it!” said blond-headed Ruby.

“We can pretend it’s like a school or a house,” added her friend, Vanessa.

Ashley Girth leads UNC Charlotte's AIAS chapter.
“It’s an igloo!” a boy called out.

“My friends call it the drum station,” countered another. “They drum on the seats.”

“It’s so rewarding to see the little kids using it,” said fourth-year architecture student Ashley Girth, watching the children play on a bright April afternoon. A parade of feet stomps along the sturdy wooden and concrete benches that encircle the structure’s interior. Black patent leather shoes, Batman sneakers, floral fabric flats and pink Disney princess boots suddenly leap off and run across the playground to a wooden deck platform with seats, railings and planting boxes.

Both the play structure and the “outdoor classroom” in the Chantilly Montessori playground were designed and built by UNC Charlotte students and faculty. They are the most recent projects completed by Freedom By Design, a program of the University’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects Students (AIAS). Girth is the program’s current president.

‘Radically Impact’

As the AIAS community service program, Freedom By Design encourages architecture students to use their skills to “radically impact the lives of people in their communities,” said the AIAS website. The UNC Charlotte School of Architecture started a Freedom By Design program in 2007 under the mentorship of architecture faculty John Nelson, Greg Snyder and David Thaddeus.

The playground is popular with students.
The first projects, said Nelson, were about “designing something that restores freedom to movement.” The students replaced stairs with ramps, widened doorways, rebuilt porches — projects that helped older people regain mobility within their homes. Nelson said the projects are not only about community engagement but an educational opportunity.

“Most architecture students don’t have construction experience. If we are going to design buildings, we need to know how to put them together.” While architecture faculty consistently provide guidance and resources, the program is “student initiated and student led: We tell them ‘we are not going to do it for you,’” Nelson said.

The relationship with Chantilly Montessori began more three years ago with the design and construction of the outdoor learning space.

“It’s been amazing to work with the students at UNC Charlotte because of their enthusiasm and their willingness to embrace the thoughts, concerns and ideas that we had at Chantilly,” said Heather Simpson, a teacher at the school who oversaw the first project. “The design of the outdoor learning space kept morphing and morphing as we (teachers) gave input.”

The space is used not only for playtime but for science lessons, especially environmental science activities. “It’s been used by at least 11 classrooms,” Simpson said.

Nature’s Design

The playground doubles as an outside classroom.
After completing the outdoor classroom in the spring of 2013, UNC Charlotte continued its relationship with the school by beginning the design of the playhouse. After two planning meetings, the Freedom By Design students chose a concept based on an apple — not only for its metaphorical association with education but because of the inherent structural stability of nature’s design. At one planning meeting, students grabbed apples and carving tools and began to “interrogate” the form.

“We wanted to explore new construction methods to achieve the apple form and create opportunities that allowed us to expand our architecture and design/build experiences,” said Girth. Months later, people passing through Storrs architecture building could see huge wooden arcs lying on the floor and propped against walls — glued, laminated timber “ribs,” bent to form the apple-shaped structure.

On Jan. 17, Girth, Nelson, architecture professor Greg Snyder and more than 20 students who included Snyder’s Design Build 1 seminar class gathered at Chantilly to assemble the main structure of the playhouse. As a team, they worked together to put each rib up one by one. As the first rib went up, Girth couldn’t watch.

“I was so afraid it wouldn’t come together. But once they were all up, I was like — wow! That’s what we designed. It was pretty neat.”

The final touches were completed in March. In keeping with the Freedom By Design mission, the project was done at no cost to the school. Funding came from the School of Architecture and the Charlotte chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with in-kind donations from Lowe’s, Home Depot and Faulk Brothers Hardware.

“As a leader through the design and construction phases of the project, I can’t believe how many great people I have gotten to work with and how much I have been encouraged to continue doing projects like this in the future,” Girth mused, viewing the children gallop in and out of the apple/igloo/crown/drum station/fort/playhouse. “There were definitely some difficult moments, but finally seeing it finished — every bit of work has been worth it.”

Meg Freeman Whalen is director of communications and external relations for the College of Arts + Architecture.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Researcher studies social media in China

By Melba Newsome

During the last week of May, top communications researchers from around the world gathered at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the 13th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference. As conference co-organizer, Min Jiang, associate professor, Department of Communication Studies, oversaw the wide-ranging discussion of the social, political, cultural and economic effects the Internet is having in her native China.

Min Jiang studies social media in China.
This is a topic with which Jiang is intimately familiar, having researched and written on it since her days as a graduate student. Jiang wrote her thesis on Chinese e-government and her dissertation on what electronic government actually means for the people who want to participate in local politics. She discovered that, although the Internet is monitored and restricted, it also gave the people a sense that their government was more responsive and suggested the government’s ability to change.

Unlike the vast majority of graduate papers that are only read by people required to do so, Jiang’s work attracted attention far beyond the halls of academia. “A lot of people who read my work were in the United Nations and people inside China,” recalls Jiang.

A colleague’s research at the University of Pennsylvania on the involvement of Chinese citizens with the Internet prompted Jiang to broaden her focus to include China’s people and the Internet’s overall impact on the country.

Jiang’s long-standing passion and scholarly interests in China’s communications crossed paths with two of the most prominent stories of our time: the massive diffusion of the Internet and the rise of China as a world power with more than 640 million Internet users, 500 million micro bloggers and 1.2 billion mobile phone users.  Her timing could not have been more auspicious.

Jiang fell in love with communications as a student at an International school in Beijing. As a 13 years-old learning English for the first time, she was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the time, Jiang knew little about American history or the civil rights struggle, so many of many of King’s metaphors and analogies were lost on her. “I only understood a fraction of it but I was able to understand the gist of what he was trying to express,” she recalls. She also grasped the power of effective communications to move, unite or divide people around a cause and to change the world around them.

China’s collective memory of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre was still fresh and the country wanted to look, if not actually be, more open, providing the perfect launching pad to pursue communications as a vocation.

“At the time, it was a liberal environment where Chinese were eager to learn about the world and doing a lot of soul searching to find out what went wrong in terms of the economy.”

 Jiang obtained her undergraduate degree in American studies and British literature and a Masters degree in Australian Studies. While many of her friends went on to become career diplomats, Jiang worked as a news editor with China Central Television translating news from sources such as AP and Reuters.

“I learned a lot about how news organizations work behind the scenes and quite a bit about how to get around the rules,” she says, before adding impishly, “People don’t censor everything.”

Access to some information created a craving for more information, so Jiang chose to continue her studies in the United States. After receiving her Ph.D. in Media, Technology and Society in from Purdue University, he arrived at UNC Charlotte in 2007.

Jiang teaches Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte.
Jiang briefly considered going back to China but felt that her writings on politics and open communications would be more restricted. While acknowledging that her work is critical of China, Jiang does not consider it unfair. For example, Jiang points out that the government is riding a wave of authoritarian legitimacy, having lifting 300 million people out of poverty in recent decades.

Since coming to UNC Charlotte, Jiang has been widely published in prominent communications journals, including the Journal of Communication and Policy & Internet. She is currently working on a book, China v. Information: Between Macro-control and Micro-power, which seeks to dispel many of the common myths surrounding China and the Internet.

“In Western news coverage and people’s imagination, the Chinese Internet holds an important place, oscillating between an Orwellian state of total surveillance with no freedom and a nation of great contestation with a vibrant protest culture and sanguine prospects for democratization,” she explains.

Jiang calls China’s Internet policies authoritarian informationalism, combining elements of capitalization, authoritarianism and Confucianism in an effort to balance government and commercial interests.

Although she doubts that the Internet alone will not democratize China, she believes could incrementally help liberalize Chinese politics through transparency, accountability and representation. “For the longest time, the Chinese people were taught to be this cookie-cutter person. The Internet has empowered them to be whoever they want. They have gone from being represented to self-representation.”

# # #

University Hosted Big Supporters in May

By Paul Nowell

Hardly a week goes by when a VIP does not pay a visit to the UNC Charlotte campus.

North Carolina's urban research university recently played host to several distinguished individuals, each of whom has given the school an immeasurable amount of support and leadership.

Charlotte Chamber CEO Bob Morgan
Most recently, Charlotte Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Morgan spent a few hours on campus. Morgan was on hand to accept the 2015 UNC Charlotte Distinguished Service Award, which was presented to him and the Chamber.

Over the last several years, Morgan has worked closely with UNC Charlotte on numerous initiatives, providing leadership in advocacy for the University’s elevation to doctoral degree-granting status, the establishment of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC), the advancement of the Digital Science Initiative and as a member of the Football Feasibility Committee.

He also is an eloquent speaker when he is asked to elaborate on the role the University plays in the economic vitality of the greater Charlotte region.

“This University educates many of our citizens, and it plays a large and growing role in driving our economy,” he said at the May 27 ceremony. “Chancellor (Philip L.) Dubois and his team are great partners to the Charlotte business community.  It is easy to be an advocate for UNC Charlotte.”

Sandra and Leon Levine drew media attention.
Two weeks prior to that, Sandra and Leon Levine came back to campus to participate in a groundbreaking for a new residence hall dedicated to housing students of the Levine Scholars Program and the Honors College.

The new facility will be known as Levine Hall, in honor of Sandra and Leon Levine. Through their foundation, the Levines have committed more than $18 million to the Levine Scholars Program, which began in 2009. Levine Hall is scheduled to open in summer 2016.

“Although the new building will bear our names, it will really be about the students – the scholars. It is these community-minded, ethical scholars who will continue to be a driving force for positive change in our region,” Leon Levine said at the ceremony.

On May 11, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson received an Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree for his philanthropy to the University and both Carolinas. The honorary degree was presented at the University’s commencement, where some 3,750 students also got their degrees.
Jerry Richardson flanked by Provost Joan Lorden and
Chancellor Philip L. Dubois

Richardson did not speak very long, but his remarks were poignant. He choked up as he spoke about his mother and grandmother teaching him to always display good manners.

Without a doubt, there will be other important guests who stop by campus for one reason or another this month and next month, and the month after that one. But we had quite a run in May didn’t we?

# # #

Paul Nowell is a media relations manager in the Office of Public Relations.