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Summer Camp Helps Students Discover Architecture

Kevin Erickson works with a student during the Discover Architecture camp.
Kevin Erickson, Director of the Discover Architecture camp, interacts with a student during one of the sessions.

July 22, 2013

Is architecture art? Or is it engineering? Or computer-aided design? Or math or geometry?

While the 68 young people who came to Discover Architecture camp for the two, two-week sessions this summer might not be able to answer these long-debated questions, they will definitely have a better idea of what studying architecture at Illinois is like. And some will end up coming back one of these falls to try to solve the mystery themselves.

Student enjoys drawing exercise.
Discover Architecture student enjoys a drawing exercise.

Unlike many summer camps on campus that serve high schoolers, more than 1/3 of the students who attended Discover Architecture this summer will be freshmen on campus this fall. For these students, the camp gives them a jump start on getting acclimated to campus and the program.

Says camp director Kevin Erickson, "We give them a tour; we show them the lay of the land; we teach them a couple of tricks on this and that; and they kind of understand just what's happening campus-wide, and then they really understand the basics of the profession."

Besides hands-on opportunities to use Rhinoceros software to design a structure, build a model, and present it at a poster session, students also learned about a variety of architecture careers. For example, during a field trip to Chicago, which included a boat tour of the city, students visited an architectural firm and discovered what working in an architecture office is like.

The two-week immersion in architecture also included watching movies about it, plus guest speakers who presented different aspects of architecture and shared about the process of becoming an architect, as well as related fields like landscape architecture, urban planning, and design.

Kevin Erickson and high school student.
Student participating in Discover Architecture camp draws a model during one of the drafting sessions.

According to Erickson, what the camp conveys to students, in a nutshell, is this: Architecture is about an idea.

"So we try to emphasize that translation of all these buildings originally from some form of idea, and how we develop that idea...and so I think that's the awakening that they get in the two weeks."

Erickson reports that students who attend Discover Architecture seem form a lasting bond over the two-week period that lasts long past the camp. Even though the students don't all come to Illinois, or don't even choose to go into architecture; they're still in communication afterwards.

Student takes a break during one of the camp's sessions.
Discover Architecture camper takes a break during one of the camp's sessions.

"It is a close two weeks, you know," adds Erickson. "It's 24 hours a day."

This year's group of students not only did some networking and relationship building, but they established a cohort ahead of the fall semester. More importantly, they got their own Facebook page.

This was Erickson's first year running the camp. Fresh from a 5-year stint with Upward Bound, Erickson indicates that in that summer program for underrepresented high school students, he had only gotten the students for one hour in the afternoon every day for six weeks, which he said, "wasn't long enough to actually get something accomplished." Excited about the prospect of working with students for a full two weeks, Erickson took over as director of Discover Architecture, admitting it would "give me a reason to be here on campus summer time."

Why take charge of 68 high school students for 24 hours a day for four weeks, including the inevitable 11:30 pm call to the emergency room? (Confesses Erickson, "I am sure they are up probably 24 hours of those days. I have been told, 'You know, expect at least one phone call around 11:30 pm or 12:00 am saying someone's got to go to the hospital.) It's simple. Erickson loves teaching. In fact, although he has a private practice on the east coast, he loves teaching so much that last year he took 89 flights commuting back and forth between here and his practice in New York City.

Kevin Erickson teaches a student an old archectect's trick: Taping pennies on the underside of a protractor helps it slide across other materials when drawing.
Kevin Erickson is about to teach the students an old architect's trick: taping pennies on the underside of drawing tools helps them slide across other papers, such as stickie notes, when drawing.

Erickson loves being around the students. He says: "I just really love the energy that the students have and the naiveté, because they are not jaded by hearing, 'Oh you can't do that,' or 'You can do that.' And every once in a while, you'll get that one student who sees it differently because he hasn't been told, 'No, you can't,' or hasn't been beaten down by being in that profession, that actually sees it in a unique way, and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, you've got something here; let's develop that!' But also that endless energy—that energy keeps me going. I love the energy."

Erickson didn't teach Discover Architecture all by himself. He had help from folks who have previously been involved, such as David Emmons, who was in his second year teaching the camp.

Emmons, who just received his Master's in Architecture and TAed for Architecture's Sophomore Studios this past year, says Discover Architecture has a similar curriculum to the semester-long studio, but instead is crammed into two weeks. According to Emmons, the camp's curriculum has improved from last year, and exposes students to more computer graphics, hand drawing, models, and laser cutting.

"We're throwing a lot at them in two weeks—kind of asking a lot from them," says Emmons, "but I think they're having fun with it."

David Emmons looks at a student's work during one of the camps hands-on sessions.
David Emmons looks at a student's work during one of the camps hands-on sessions.

Why does Emmons devote part of his summer to introduce high school students to architecture? "I'm basically doing it this year because I had a really good time last year," he indicates.

"What initially drew me to it was, this is their first time in college, and it sounded really intriguing to me, just as a two-week architecture camp. And for them to be high school students and to be exposed to college life for the first time was even more intriguing—the whole thing just sounded like a really fun experience."

 discover architecture camper draws the model she designed.
Camper works on drawing the model she designed.

Emmons agrees with Erickson about the relationships the kids form during the camp. That's one reason he's drawn to it.

"And after that first session last year, it was so rewarding to see…at the end of two weeks, how good of friends these kids become, and—whether they want to admit it or not—how much they learned in the past two weeks."

Emmons describes how the campers go from complete strangers to best budds...all in two weeks:

"From that very first day when nobody talks to each other and they're sitting three seats away from the next person; to the next day, they're talking, but they're still separated (there's like the boys and the girls); then by the third or fourth day, they're actually mingling and talking; and then by the two weeks' end, when they have their final exhibition, it's like these kids are the best of friends. And it's because they've spent the last two weeks, 24/7, with each other…I really love the program. It's really awesome."

Discover Arachitecture camper
Participant in in the summer 2013 Discover Architecture camp draws the model he designed during the camp.

Teacher helps student during a session of the camp.
Instructor (center) helps a Discover Architecture student during one of the camp's sessions.

In fact, the impact of the two-week camp lasts for years. Of the twelve Architecture students who helped Erickson and Emmons run the program, ¼ of them are Discover Architecture alums themselves.

For example, counselor Ryan Doidge, who just graduated with a Bachelor's in Architecture and is heading to grad school, attended the camp himself in the summer of 07. Doidge reports that because Illinois had been one of his top schools for his undergraduate work, he had attended the camp to see what it would be like.

And the camp had such an impact on his choice of architecture as a career, that now, six years later, he himself wanted to impact other students:

"I had gone through the camp myself, so I knew it was a fun experience. I wanted to see if I could help get other kids interested in architecture as I was interested and inspired by the people that taught me."

Adds Doidge: "The kids are great, so it's been a lot of fun. It's nice to connect with kids; they really get into it."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 8-12 Outreach, Architecture, Summer Camp, 2013

Ryan Doidge (right) helps a Discover Architecture student.
Ryan Doidge (center) checks out a student's work during one of the camp's drafting sessions.