On a warm evening in September, a dozen campers sat around a blazing fire at Camp Woodlands, a Girl Scouts of America campsite on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Like thousands of scouts before them, they were closing out a full day of hiking and exploring by precariously cooking their own dinner over an open fire, making s’mores and giggling over story chains. Yet, despite engaging in time-honored Girl Scout activities, scouts they were not; these were UMD architecture students kicking off a new studio by putting themselves in their client’s hiking boots.
The poet Mark Van Doren once said, “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” For over 100 years, fostering discovery has been a pillar of the Girl Scouts program; one that nurtures girls who will change the world. This semester, ten students from the architecture program worked closely with organization administrators, leaders and girl scouts themselves to re-envision Camp Woodlands, one of the oldest Girl Scout sites in Maryland. Mixing innovative design thinking with the site’s natural resources and treasured heritage, the project aims to create a place for the Girls Scouts to put tradition into practice for the next generation, nurturing the discovery of new knowledge, adventure, friendship and self-confidence.
Taught by Professor of Architecture Madlen Simon, with the help of Professor of Historic Preservation Don Linebaugh and UMD’s Real Estate Development Program Director Margaret McFarland, the semester-long studio will produce three master plans for the camp, which include designs for cabins, the main lodge and the camp gateway. The students, working in teams, engaged in extensive research, experience and expertise before putting pencil to paper. This included a deep dive into both the Girl Scouts history and didactic architecture, which provided a primer for developing “buildings that teach.” They also benefited from the perspective of Chicago-based architect Gary Ainge, FAIA, who led the design of Paul Newman’s famed camp for medically fragile kids, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. But engaging in the Girl Scout experience, both by talking to current members and through the fateful September camp out, provided the teams with the rich information that drove the designs.
“I think the camping experience at Woodlands was really fun up until we went to bed,” laughs John Vogtman, a Path B grad student. “Despite being close to the water, there is so much forest cover that any sense of breeze just wasn’t happening. Temperatures had been in the high 90s during the day and we could really feel that in the cabins. So, while we went to bed, I’m not sure there was much sleeping. Regardless, it was immensely helpful for me to experience what it’s like to be there and to connect with the site.”
Spending an afternoon with a chatty group of girl scouts, shortly thereafter, continued to paint a picture for the students. While the girls stressed the need for camp staples like better restroom accommodations and fewer bugs in the cabins, they also included a few surprises, like the desire to completely unplug.
“We assumed, being young girls, they would want to have phones and other technology during their camp stay, but a lot of them actually liked getting away from that, getting away from TV and just unplugging,” said Renata Southard, another Path B graduate student on the project. “It was really fun to hear them say that they just wanted to be outdoors and put their phones down.”
Connecting with nature was a universal theme found across the drawing board. Each of the student designs aims to capture the spirit of adventure and discovery that epitomizes a Girl Scout camp experience, using contemporary design techniques to accentuate Camp Woodland’s many assets. Located just west of Annapolis, Camp Woodlands is a 34-acre topographic marvel, comprised of dense forest, a ravine and a beautiful waterfront edge on the South River, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay. The extreme site variation, previously considered a challenge, was one that the students turned into an asset.
“The site is just incredible,” explains graduate student Josh Kilian. “The clients told us they wanted Camp Woodland to be a destination for Girl Scouts everywhere, where they could get an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else. We wanted to do this by highlighting the two unique features of the camp: the waterfront and the ravine. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the U.S. and a huge resource for education and conservation.”
The combination of thoughtful research and experience infused the student’s designs with elements for learning and fun, using both time-tested and contemporary techniques, and inspired many of the sustainable elements seen in their final concepts. The design by “Team Fire” incorporates campfires in all the cabin designs, a nod to Girl Scout camps of the past. Features like water filtration and rooftop gardens pull double duty, providing an exercise in conservation and education.
“This idea started out very early on,” explained Renata. “As we were researching the history of the Girl Scouts, it was very apparent that the main goal is to educate and give girls the power to have these outdoor experiences, so that became really important to us.”
Added Josh, “Not only are we incorporating all of these sustainable features, but we’re making the girls very aware of them in the spirit of learning.”
In addition to the overnight camping trip, the Girl Scout project provided two essential experiences for the students not typically seen in studio: the opportunity to collaborate as a team and work closely with a client. According to John, helping the organization discover what they wanted—and what they already had—was a hugely rewarding process.
“Right off the bat we didn’t know what they wanted, but we eventually learned that they weren’t quite sure what they wanted either and we helped them discover that.”
Adds Renata, “It was incredibly rewarding to show our clients the camp’s potential and that it could be the premiere ecological learning camp in the Mid-Atlantic. It was really fun to have them get so excited about our ideas.”
The final product will be a book designed by graduate student and teaching assistant on the studio, Justin Monongdo. The book will describe the process and include each team's design, which Simon hopes will assist the Girl Scouts articulate the ideas developed in the studio as well as help with fundraising.
“I was a Girl Scout when I was younger, and remember it as a wonderful time in my childhood,” said Professor Madlen Simon. “What we really want to provide the girls is that authentic camp experience that fosters discovery.”
Adds Josh, “This is the best time of their lives and we want to help nurture that.”