Pre-college summer enrichment programs for high school students

About Us

Seize the Summer!

Wonderworks is a non-profit organization that provides Houston-area high school students with pre-college summer learning experiences in arts, literature and media. By exploring challenging subject matter and techniques in a college setting with college-level instructors, students acquire skills, information, outlooks, and connections that significantly expand their cultural and academic horizons. In the process, they also become better-qualified college applicants and better equipped to succeed in undergraduate studies.

Athletes, musicians, dancers– anyone who has to perform at a high level year in and year out – make a point of staying in training during the offseason. The same goes for academic endeavors – if you don’t do something to keep the rust off, studies show you’ll actually lose ground over the summer. If you value learning for its own sake and want to keep your momentum going en route to college, Wonderworks or  something like it should be part of your summer. Wonderworks at the University of Houston and Rice University is more than just a change of venue– it’s fresher, more relaxed, and far more challenging than school as you probably know it. In fact, it’s almost like being in college but with the luxury of pursuing a single area of interest intensively. And since it’s only five weeks out of three months, you’ll still have plenty of time left to chill, travel, save the world, or whatever else comes next.

Wonderworks courses and summer workshops are held on the central campus of the University of Houston and Rice University, which are accessible by bus and light rail for students commuting from within the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area. These programs are supported by Houston Endowment, The Elkins Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., and the Architecture Center Houston (AIA) Foundation, whose generosity helps keep tuition affordable and underwrites scholarships in the form of tuition waivers for students who need them. No qualified student is prevented from participating in any of the Wonderworks summer programs because of inability to pay tuition.

Admission to all programs is competitive and based on school grades, supplemented by PSAT scores (or their equivalent), and teacher/counselor recommendations. Students who will be entering the 10th, 11th or 12th grade the following fall, or who will have just graduated from high school before the summer begins, are eligible to apply. All admission decisions are made on a need-blind basis. Scholarships in the form of tuition waivers are available only to students who demonstrate need. Students who receive a federally-subsidized free lunch at school and/or who are enrolled in the State of Texas Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) automatically qualify for tuition waivers, as do students whose family income falls within 400 percent of the federally-defined poverty level (https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines).

Courses and workshops carry neither high school nor college credit. Regular attendance and satisfactory participation are expected of all students.


Science finds what is already there,
but the artist makes that which is not there.
                        Louis I. Kahn, Talks with Students, 1969

Architecture and filmmaking are exercises of imagination, though grounded in reality. They are not for the risk-averse. Pedagogically, they tend to be coached more than taught, but the aspiring artist also benefits from a broader and increasingly sophisticated knowledge of what others have done and how they’ve gone about it. As a practical matter, the making of “that which is not there” involves a partially “do-it-yourself” mode of conservatory-like, assisted exploration and practice that takes place in design studio or on location, soundstages, and in editing suites. This creative semi-freedom is only part of the process by which artists develop their talent; it also entails self-criticism and diplomatic but pointed criticism by others in order to shape, reshape, edit or refine a building design or film.

These studios presuppose no prior experience in the study of either architecture or filmmaking, just a willingness to try something new the way it’s taught in college (which may also come as a revelation even if you’ve already gotten a taste of it in high school). Finding your groove may be a bit frustrating at times, but mistakes are something even the best architects and directors inevitably make from time to time – and learn from too. With this in mind, we focus on process and learning outcomes rather than the illusory gratification of overachieving final products; our approach is that of an age-appropriate starting rather than finishing school. You may or may not find you have talent really worth cultivating, but even if you don’t, the not-so-random style points you pick up along the way through lectures, films and field trips will help you appreciate buildings or movies in new and unexpected ways.


A heedy reader shall often discover in other men’s compositions perfections far different
from the author’s meaning, and such as haply he never dreamed of, and illustrateth them
with richer senses and more excellent constructions
                        Michel de Montaigne, Various Outcomes of the Same Plan, Essays I:24 (1572-80)

When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes
luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense
of our author is as broad as the world.

                        Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar, 1837

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling,
a way of looking at things – which you had thought unique and particular to you. Now
here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is
long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

                        Alan Bennett, Staring out of the Window, Untold Stories, 2005

Reading like writing improves with practice. Our literature courses are taught from both a scholarly and writerly point of view, combining the what with the how of things. We’ll help you learn to read between the lines while introducing you to authors who don’t always – or even usually – find their way onto high school reading lists. You’ll also consider what other people have said about what you’re reading, while developing critical perspectives of your own.

These courses are reading-intensive, though you’ll also try your hand/fingers at writing each week. You’ll be responsible for reading a long article or story or several short ones or several chapters of a book each evening and over the weekend in preparation for the next class, just as in college. These courses are for avid readers only – if you haven’t done the reading completely and thoroughly beforehand, you can’t contribute to and benefit fully from class discussions and lectures. Most writing assignments will also be done in the privacy of your own home or favorite coffee shop, before they’re line-edited and further “workshopped” in class.

Most mornings are spent around a seminar table, with mixed media enhancements to make connections to the readings via video, radio, filmclips, and music downloads. Afternoons are reserved for an eclectic assortment of films that relate to and extend the sense of what transpires in the morning and which, like the readings, may be destined to stay with you for some time to come.


Wonderworks gives no grades and awards no high school or college credit. But if you take the time and make the effort, you’ll not only add to your knowledge and skills, you’ll also have the opportunity to impress some very perceptive teachers who might later be disposed, as individuals, to serve as supplementary recommenders when you apply to college. In the meantime, they can help informally to demystify the process of applying to college in general. In most cases, you’ll also have the opportunity to develop writing samples or other examples of your work to add to portfolios and maybe even a wellcrafted personal statement to help put your best foot forward – though none of these is a substitute for good grades and challenging courses on your high school transcript and the test scores to back them up.

When the fall comes and you go back to high school or even begin your college career, you may find that Wonderworks has helped you learn to get more out of what comes your way academically. Literature students may notice they’re better at critical reading and, by some process of osmosis, writing too. Filmmaking students may start thinking and watching outside the multiplex box and even second-guessing directors. And participants in the architecture program may have somehow gained the almost magical power to see through buildings instead of simply taking them at face value. We can’t guarantee it, but it’s been known to happen.


Just because studio and class work is ungraded doesn’t mean we aren’t paying close attention to how you’re doing. We don’t micro-manage on purpose so you can have enough space to engage the material, get comfortable with it, and take off from there. But we do expect you to consistently keep your head in the game; interact politely, considerately and cooperatively with faculty and fellow-students; and be in class on time every day ready to give it your all, all day long. You must also be able to respond appropriately to constructive criticism of your work, which is an important part of our modus operandi. Your good standing and continued enrollment in Wonderworks depend on getting these few things right the first time – there are no do-overs.

Wonderworks studios and classes place a premium on process and progress, intellectual curiosity and creativity. We favor “messy vitality” – to borrow Robert Venturi’s phrase – over pat solutions and easy answers. We’re here to help you try things out that may seem difficult at first but which, once you get the knack, will help you take your game to the next level. Think of Wonderworks as a community of teachers and students who come together for five weeks each summer, a kind of pickup band that makes room for both solo and ensemble work, and where you get to try your chops with some of the best player-coaches around. Wonderworks is not for everyone, but for those who have the patience and talent, we’ll do our best to make your summer one to grow on.


Wonderworks was formed in 2004 by a group of concerned university and secondary school educators and parents who saw a need to offer students of special promise and ability age-appropriate but sophisticated extra-curricular learning opportunities to increase cultural literacy and stimulate creative development. Wonderworks initially functioned under the umbrella of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, but since June 2005 has operated as a freestanding 501 (c) (3) organization under the IRS code.

For more information: info@wonderworkshouston.org

For UH Campus Map: www.uh.edu/maps

For Rice Campus Map: www.rice.edu/maps/maps.html

Wonderworks Summer 2018 is made possible in part by support from:
Houston Endowment
The Elkins Foundation
The Brown Foundation, Inc.
and the Houston Architecture Center Foundation.