A student who enters college as a prospective English or biology major has a pretty good idea of what he or she’s getting into: chances are, that student has already taken Advanced Placement classes in his or her chosen subject. Not so for the would-be architect. Few high schools teach technical drawing; none prepares students to slog through all-nighters in the studio, or to endure withering crits. How can a 17-year-old be confident that he or she will actually like architecture school and succeed in it?

That teenager would find out at an architecture summer camp. These camps (programs, really) allow high-schoolers—and, increasingly, college students and adult professionals—to experience architectural education firsthand for a few weeks in the summer, an appetizer they can try before the main course of a B.Arch. or an M.Arch. degree. Today there are 66 such programs around the country, most hosted by colleges and universities, a few by nonprofits or arts institutions, according to Lee W. Waldrep, assistant director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Their popularity has surged: “In the ’80s, there were maybe 20 or 30,” Waldrep notes. This is partly because the schools themselves reap great benefits from the programs—extra revenue, a means of employing graduate students, and, perhaps, a small boost to recruitment.

We sent three reporters to three different campuses, where each of them spent a day learning the design-camp ropes. Read on to see what they found.

These are just three of more than 60 architecture summer programs around the country. For a complete list, visit archcareers.org.

University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, in conjunction with Wonderworks

On the second floor of the University of Houston’s architecture building, Donovan Linsey of Fulshear, Texas, is plotting out floor plans and scissoring cardboard into curlicues. Taking shape in front of him is a model for what’s been billed as an antique car gallery—but this looks more like a U-boat done over by Matisse, a three-dimensional still-life of interlocking volumes. “This is the only place around here where you can do this,” the homeschooled designer says, casting an eye about the studio. And he should know: This is his third summer doing it.

Alongside Linsey are 51 other teenagers from around the greater Houston area, all of them participating in the university’s Summer Discovery Program in Architecture. Now entering its 15th season under director Drexel Turner, Summer Discovery—run in conjunction with the education nonprofit Wonderworks—draws its recruits from local high schools, putting out a call for young people with a creative itch to scratch and without, apparently, any compunction about forfeiting a chunk of their summer vacation.

Not too big a chunk, however. For five weeks in June and July, four hours of studio work under graduate-student supervision follow an hour-long morning lecture. Speakers are drafted from among University of Houston staff and other local scholars, and topics range from the churches of San Antonio to the canals of Venice. Seven hundred and fifty dollars covers tuition and equipment; an optional sixth week of studio-only work; as well as field trips every Friday afternoon that get the students out of doors and onto the street (and, sometimes, out of town). Admissions are need-blind, and about two-thirds of the class received waivers for the full amount. As Turner puts it, Summer Discovery isn’t a “boot camp”: “I remember hearing that in Philip Johnson’s office the pencils went down at five every evening. People should have a life.”

Turner is an architecture educator who knows his way around the profession, especially in his native Houston. Formerly curator of architectural projects at the city’s famous Menil Collection, he joined the University of Houston faculty full-time in 1996. “I’d been thinking about doing something [like Summer Discovery] for a long time,” and on arrival he set about laying the groundwork.

His Philip Johnson reference is apropos, too, since the College of Architecture itself is a prime specimen from the latter’s punched-window neoclassicist interval. Linsey, still carving out the entrance to his incipient car gallery, is candid when asked for his opinion of the building he’s spent the past three summers studying in. “I don’t care for it,” he says.

Today is actually a first for Linsey and his peers, because their 20-something minders will be directing crits, not of the students’ completed models, but of their preliminary mock-ups. As the students break into groups of 12-13, Linsey’s project sits besides others, some more angular and muscular, some more varied in section; one girl’s design for a kindergarten (this week’s other elective design problem, along with the car gallery) includes a series of courtyards like those she’s seen on a class visit to the Menil Collection.

Leading the review, Rice University M.Arch. candidate Jessica Cronstein pulls no punches. She asks Linsey, “What distinguishes the volumes?” His plan shows a program that wanders through the interior somewhat irrespective of the geometric ensemble in which it’s housed. “And where are the windows?” That one, too, stumps the architect. He hadn’t gotten that far.

It’s tough stuff, the critique process, and one wonders how the kids stick it out—and why. As the program’s creator sees it, it’s not just about exploring design, but about exploring a possible adulthood—a possible life. Turner recalls a group trip to a local architect’s office. When the principal asked if anyone had any questions, a hand went up and a student asked, “What kind of car do you drive?” “That’s the sort of questions these kids want answered,” Turner says.

Not that every student is counting on Gehry-sized success. Leanne Dunn, a rising senior at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Katy, Texas, has already developed a backup plan: she is owner and operator of the Puppy Love Pet Sitting Service. Her model, another car gallery, takes a cue from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum—but instead of the ziggurat cylinders telescoping one on top of the next, they’re staggered, like a stack of loose change. She says she didn’t want the model to be just a “boring” imitation of Wright.

Attention, firm principals: She’ll be available for hire circa spring 2017. —Ian Volner 

five weeks (9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday)
Tuition: $750 (2010 rate)