About Us

Seize the Summer!

Wonderworks is a non-profit organization that provides pre-college summer learning experiences in arts, literature, and media, primarily for Houston-area high school students. We also provide need-based scholarships in form of full-tuition waivers for all academically-qualified Houston-area students.

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.

Although most Wonderworks students reside in the Houston Metropolitan area, those who do not must make arrangements to stay with family friends or relatives since we do not offer residential accommodations or out-of-class supervision. Our programs are supported in part by Houston Endowment, The Elkins Foundation, and The Brown Foundation, Inc., whose generosity helps keep tuition affordable and underwrites scholarships in the form of full-tuition waivers to all academically well-qualified Houston-area students who demonstrate need. This is the only financial aid we provide.

Admission to all programs is competitive and based on academic performance and potential as indicated by PSAT/SAT scores (or their ACT equivalent) and grades/course work, supplemented, as needed/appropriate, by teacher or counselor evaluations.  Students who will be entering the 10th, 11th or 12th grades 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. Students who are enrolled in any of the following programs:

  • federally-subsidized free or reduced-cost lunch at school based on family income
  • Children’s Medicaid
  • State of Texas Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • fee waivers for SAT and/or ACT

automatically qualify for full-tuition waivers, as do students whose family’s adjusted gross 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.

Super Studios

architecture and filmmaking

Science finds what is already there, but the artist makes that which is not there.

Louis I. Kahn, Talks with Students, 1969

Architecture and film are exercises of imagination, though they are also governed by practical considerations of media and technique. 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. 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 studios, on location, on soundstages, or in editing rooms. 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 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 superficially sophisticated final products. You may or may not find you have talent really worth cultivating in a particular field, but even if you don’t, the not-so-random style points you pick up along the way through desk crits, juries, lectures, production and editing days, and field trips will help you appreciate buildings or movies in new and unexpected ways.

Page Turners

fiction and nonfiction/journalism

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)

Reading like writing improves with practice. Our literature/film studies programs in fiction and nonfiction/journalism are taught from both a critical and writerly point of view, considering the what and also the how of things. We’ll help you learn to read between the lines while introducing you to authors who seldom find their way onto high school reading lists. The same goes for the films you’ll watch, both imagined and true, which are watched as closely as the stories are read, from the standpoint of content and construction. You’ll also consider what other people have said about what you’re reading and writing, while developing critical perspectives of your own.

These programs are reading-intensive, though you’ll also try your hand/fingers at writing. 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 programs 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 eventually audience-tested in class.

Mornings are typically spent around a seminar table, with mixed media enhancements to make connections to the readings via video, radio, film clips, 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.

Eye Openers

art history/appreciation

Art thrives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honor, are not times of development — are times, possibly, even a little of dullness.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” Longman’s Magazine, September 1884

Looking at art is an art in itself, at once far ranging and also susceptible to the kinds of “close reading” associated with literature. Much of what Closer Looks brings into focus through readings, lectures, discussions, and films is broadened and amplified in a series of carefully “curated” visits to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Menil Collection, as well as day-long expeditions to the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, in addition to other venues in San Antonio and Austin.

Apart from “deep dives” into particular works of art, the output of individual artists, and selected movements in art, the program will also focus on the context of artistic endeavors and the audiences, institutions, and activities connected with them, including museums, patrons, collectors, promotion, reportage, and criticism. Archaeology and the conservation of sites and works of art will also figure in the mix. Closer Looks is intended as a lively and open-ended series of investigations to help shape agendas for further looking and enjoyment.

Casting Call

theater/dramatic literature

In my opinion, art is a kind of anarchy, and the theater is a province of art. The Mummers of St. Louis were my professional youth. They were the disorderly theater group of St. Louis, standing socially, if not also artistically, opposite to the usual Little Theater group.

The first time I worked with them was in 1936, when I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis. They were, then, under the leadership of a man named Willard Holland, their organizer and their director….Everything he touched he charged with electricity. Was it my youth that made it seem that way? Possibly, but not probably. In fact not even possibly: you judge theater, really, by its effect on audiences, and Holland’s work never failed to deliver…

The Mummers were not a paying proposition. There were laborers. There were clerks. There were waitresses. There were students….and there was even a post-debutante who was a member of the Junior League of St. Louis. Many of them were fine actors. Many of them were not. Some of them could not act at all, but what they lacked in ability, Holland inspired them with in the way of enthusiasm. I guess it was all run by a kind of beautiful witchcraft! It was like a definition of what I think theater is. Something wild, something exciting, something that you are not used to.

Tennessee Williams, “Something Wild…” 1948

Play by Play aspires to the same kind of shoestring, seat-of-the-pants witchcraft Tennessee Williams grew up with in the company of the Mummers from 1936-40. Since the production of plays is a “social” undertaking, the experience of working together as an ensemble is one of the chief — though not the only — pleasures of this five week intensive workshop which makes room for fledgling, as well as more experienced, players and combines production with acting classes, plays on film, and dramatic literature so that performance is grounded in a broader appreciation of this special “province” of art. As with all Wonderworks programs, it’s not so much a matter of where you start, but what you gain in awareness as well as technique.

The Takeaway

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 critical and creative materials to add to portfolios. If you participate in the College Essay Workshop as a rising senior, you will also develop several drafts of an essay keyed to one of the current Common Application prompts.

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.

Nota Bene

Just because studio and class work are 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 remember.

Moving On

While the time students spend with Wonderworks is no substitute for sustained academic growth during the regular school year, we are pleased that our students have subsequently attended and/or graduated from: Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Oxford University, Princeton University, Rice University, Texas A & M University, Tulane University, University of Houston, University of Iowa, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, University of Southern California, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, Vanderbilt University, Wellesley College, Williams College, and Yale University, among others.