The cost of education is a heavy burden in Cambodia’s rural areas. Parents who cannot afford to educate all of their children are forced to choose who can attend school. Teachers are paid as little as $10 a month, and often eke out a livelihood with additional jobs that take them away from the classroom.

With the vision of creating a world-class learning environment in Cambodia, the Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) — in the northern city of Siem Reap — turned to the School of Architecture + Planning at MIT for advice. Founded by philanthropists Daniel and Karen Pritzker, JPA aims to educate talented and motivated students from low-income families while offering support to schools in the surrounding area.

Since opening in 2006, JPA has outgrown its current location. As part of the fall 2.009 Service Learning class, Special Problems in Building Technology - Design for a Sustainable Future, 17 architecture and civil engineering students worked alongside professors Marilyne Andersen, John Ochsendorf and Meejin Yoon to design classroom structures to accommodate 400 students.

After researching the cultural and climatic needs, the students designed an “ideal” classroom and an overall master plan with systems for built-in water management and natural ventilation. To inform the design and put real faces on a seemingly distant place, students in the workshop were paired with students from JPA. Throughout the course of the fall semester they discovered what really mattered to their Cambodian pen pals.

“It was important for calibrating our designs to kid life and changing our perspective,” says Julianna Sassaman (G Course 4).

In January 2010, the class traveled to Siem Reap with the support of the Public Service Center, the Jay Pritzker Academy, and the School of Architecture + Planning. For two and a half weeks, the students tackled three challenges: to work with the original campus’ architects, LBL International, and further develop the design conceived during the fall semester; to devise strategies to increase the comfort and usability of the existing library; and to design and build a new outdoor kitchen for the nearby Ampil Peam school. The students split into three groups and often shifted from one to the next, learning about the local approach to the issues and offering their own expertise in turn.