Circular saws buzzed and the smell of sawdust filled the air, as 27 students from high schools across the West scurried about the annex of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) on an overcast summer day, their intense focus a sign of a looming deadline ahead.
Sporting safety glasses and orange hard hats, the mix of teenagers swung hammers, measured 2-by-4s and drilled screws at a steady pace, putting the tricks of the trade they had spent the last week honing at the University of Colorado Denver architecture camp to work.
“They are probably doing a better job than we all do at working together, so that’s good to see,” said Matt Gines, CAP lecturer and director of the design fabrication labs, as he oversaw the final building spree. “We help lead them when we can, but the design and the project is all theirs.”
Creating a CU-city attraction
Hosted by CU Denver in conjunction with the ACE Mentor Program for students interested in architecture, construction and engineering careers, the week-long CAP camp included students from Los Angeles to Seattle and Las Vegas to Denver, all applying and being accepted to attend on full scholarships. Their mission: Design and build workstations in the Creek Front Park just outside of the school’s doors as part of a City of Denver Parks and Recreation Department project.
“Students don’t typically get these types of opportunities where they build something that people can then use and appreciate over time,” said Mark Bernstein, the downtown area planner heading the city’s efforts at boosting the use of its parks and public places. “Now CU students and downtown workers can use a workstation students built.” The site, overlooking Cherry Creek between Larimer and Lawrence streets, lent itself to a perfect CU-city partnership, Bernstein said.
Campers, tasked with conceiving, designing and building the workstations, faced a number of constraints, including a set amount of resources, said Leo Darnell, CAP assistant dean. “Also, as a public attraction, it has to be somewhat permanent. It can’t have sharp edges. It has to be sturdy. And then there’s ergonomics and looking at how the sun affects these areas.”
Probably the biggest constraint students faced was time, Bernstein said. He presented the campers with the project’s goals on Monday, they had mock-ups and sketches by Wednesday, and they were putting hammer to nail on Friday.
“We had to narrow down so many things in one week for a project that should have taken one month, so the pressure was on us,” said camper Jorge Wu Loo of San Francisco, originally from Peru. “But I like to solve problems,” said Wu Loo, who wants to be a structural or mechanical engineer.
Engaging in campus life
Of course, students were not thrown blindly into the project. Lectures, design studios, sketching exercises, and a session on Rhino modeling software were a prime focus of camp, said Rachael Kuroiwa, CAP manager of admissions and outreach.
“We structured the camp a lot around what our undergraduate students would be doing,” Kuroiwa said. “They stay in the dorms and are in classrooms next to where our students are, so they really see what we’re like here and also get a sense of what a degree in architecture entails. They are asking really thoughtful questions about the process and the industry.”
Denver architecture firms and construction companies also opened their doors to the students, giving them a snapshot of the industry beyond college. “It’s about bringing up the next generation of architects and designers,” Darnell said, adding that the field has been traditionally a white male discipline.
“There’s been a real push to get women in architecture during the past 25 years, and now about 40 percent of students in our programs are female,” he said. “We hope to attract more backgrounds for a rich diversity in the field.”
Enjoying Mile High
Immersing prospective students into the CU Denver campus life involves more than computers and classes. Organizers planned plenty of fun time, including private bowling at the Denver Athletic Club, tours around downtown Denver, and an excursion of thrill rides at Elitch Gardens Amusement Park.
The social outings helped with team-building, so the students weren’t confronted with a rigorous group project with complete strangers. “We’re all pretty like-minded yet still really different, so it makes it really fun and a lot easier to get along,” said Ashley Ulberg, a high school senior from Oregon who wants to go into construction management. “We can sort of understand each other.”
Ulberg said she liked how the campus was incorporated into the city. “You are able to see so much even just on your walk from the dorms to the classroom,” said Ulberg, whose passion began as a little girl, building elaborate cardboard dollhouses. “And then I never played with the dolls.”
Making their mark
Campers made their deadline, unveiling two 14-foot-long cedar workstations with seating and standing areas and bright yellow canopies for shade amid a mix of CU members and city planners late Friday. The students were happy with their results, and so was he, Bernstein said.
“I was impressed, to say the least, with how well-prepared they were, how intelligent they were, just their general understanding and grasp of architecture and design and construction, and how well they worked together. I was amazed.”
The finishing touches came just hours before the campers would board their planes or buses home the next morning, their camp a fleeting moment compared with their careers ahead. But their chosen field offers a unique reward.
“We’ve created something that’s going to be used by someone for a long time,” Wu Loo said. “They will sit down on this thing we built. That’s why I wanted to be an engineer. We can leave something behind.”