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Unique, transforming collaboration: Project-based learning and civic engagement

High school students in "Benches" project (L to R): (top row) Solomon Evans, Cameron Green, James Mitchell; (middle row) Mahoghani Truesdale, Jade Perez, Marissa Diaz, Jocelin Vasquez, Gracie Smithers; (bottom row) Classroom Faclitator Christelyn Nash and Instructor J Hill; (students not pictured) Jhayden Murphy and Carlitho ThomasTen high school students from Houston’s Third Ward have been selected to benefit from a unique collaboration involving the University of St. Thomas-Houston, Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Wells Fargo, and the Allbritton Art Institute. The students will earn UST college credits as they learn from seasoned instructors and create three beautiful benches to display in the MFA. Fourteen Saturdays of college-level classes at the MFAH’s Glassell will start on January 20. The civic engagement project, designed to encourage community transformation, is the brainchild of The Glassell’s director, Paul Coffey, and its intriguing name is “Benches by Trees by Youth.”

“The Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a rich and compelling history of being one of the last existing museum schools in the country,” Coffey said. “With its decades-long history of teaching art to youth, college-level curriculum to adults, and the legendary Core residency program, Glassell has recently identified civic engagement as a new initiative or a fourth leg to its programming. Project-based learning that engages the community like ‘Benches by Trees by Youth’ is the future of civic engagement at Glassell.”

Environmental Justice Inspired by Trees

Coffey’s idea for the project was inspired by the Houston trees that fall each year due to old age or weather damage. He saw a way to salvage fallen trees, contribute to project-based learning, stimulate the local economy, and support mobility-challenged museumgoers like older adults through added seating. 

As a result, instead of simply disposing of a dead 100-year-old oak tree in Hermann Park, the environmental justice project recovered the fallen tree to make the project benches.

What Students Will Learn

Learning outcomes for the students include technical mastery of woodworking, which will encompass traditional analog methods, contemporary digital processes, and the accompanying carving tools and design software. Students will emerge with a comprehensive understanding of the expansive possibilities within contemporary art and furniture making.

Students will also understand essential business practices for artists and craftspeople operating as sole proprietors. For instance, they will see how to make budgets and monetize skills. Wells Fargo will provide a seminar on small business planning for artisans.

On top of that, the project-based learning also aims to teach cultural awareness and appreciation for our community’s elderly. Students will learn about ageism, with the crafted benches highlighting the value of community elders and their acquired knowledge. Each bench will proclaim the carved message, “please sit, but make way for our elders.”


A toolbox will be provided with all materials and tools — safety glasses, work gloves, a drill, sander, carving tools, hand clamps and a carpenter’s square. Upon completion of the course, students will keep these materials.

A Model of Community Collaboration

Multiple local entities have come together to make “Benches” possible:

·      Wells Fargo stepped up to sponsor the project.

·      The Allbritton Art Institute agreed to sponsor the college credits from UST.

·      The Houston Park District worked to facilitate harvesting the dead tree.

·      Project Row House served to identify the 10 high school students from Third Ward.

Keeping expenditures local, “Benches” contracted with an area sawmill, Helmwood, to turn the tree into lumber for the project. Helmwood specializes in indigenous trees of Houston.

A System-Think Approach

With its roots firmly embedded in the soil of civic engagement, “Benches” is a systems-think project. That means every decision links to another decision and purpose.

“Systems-thinking applies equally to the design, funding, and future benefits of ‘Benches,’” said Dr. Dominic Aquila, Interim Director of the Allbritton Art Institute (AAI), and UST’s Associate Dean for the Performing and Fine Arts.  “’Benches’ is AAI’s first significant project since becoming part of the UST family.  It establishes AAI as an actively engaged citizen of the Houston arts community. Because of AAI’s support, students in the ‘Benches’ program not only have the satisfaction of creating an enduring work of art, but they also jump start their collegiate careers by earning college credit for the work.”

Coffey added, “Civically engaged projects break down artificial boundaries between institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and its surrounding communities. As institutions in our city, we have responsibilities to ourselves and the people of Houston.  Civically engaged projects can knit together institutions and partners for a greater good that would otherwise not be achievable.”