How much do people think about their built environment, other than picking the color of the walls?" asks architect MOJDEH BARATLOO, 35. "In primitive times farmers made their own tools, planned their fields before planting. They were much more in contact with the design process."

To Baratloo, a former design instructor at Cornell University, it's time to get back to the drawing board when it comes to thinking about the spaces we live in. At four inner-city Harlem grade schools, she leads a course on the nuts, bolts and basic vocabulary of architecture in hopes of turning today's passive consumers into creative participants in urban design. "Developers are the ones making the important environmental decisions right now," she complains. "What I'm trying to do is make it a normal process for these kids to evaluate their surroundings."

Using the simplest materials, Baratloo guides students through hands-on projects. The kids stack books atop rolled and folded construction paper for a primer on load-bearing walls. Then erecting a tower of drinking straws teaches balance and stability. Designing a city street with cardboard houses fuels a discussion of dimension, access, the role of automobiles and more. Studying beehives and spiderwebs unlocks insights into structure and function. "Design is the process of doing, evaluating and changing," says Mojdeh. "The critical part is to see things and form an opinion."

The daughter of an Iranian furniture designer and an actress, Mojdeh left Teheran to study architecture. After earning a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1978, she moved to New York City, worked on designs for everything from a recording studio to an office tower, and in 1984 co-founded her own firm. Two years later she began teaching her then experimental classes at Harlem's Mott Hall School of Science and Mathematics after a friend suggested her name to the school district's art director. Now she has 160 9-to 11-year-old students and is training teachers in Harlem and the South Bronx. Better still, her young alums are presumably raising the design consciousness of their parents. "Once people know how important their environment is, they can make it better," says Mojdeh simply. "These are the tools."