How to Choose a Summer Science Camp or Program
Does Science Come to Mind When You Think About Summer Camp? It Should!
You might be surprised to learn that hundreds of camps and programs across the United States offer science as part of their summer-fun lineup—and in support of an increasing committment to supporting and strengthening science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills.
Like all other summer camps, science-related summer programs are an American right of passage: hours of fun with friends, away from parents, no textbooks, no tests, no homework. The difference is that a summer science camp also offers students of all ages an opportunity to really explore science in all its hands-on, fun, goopy, messy, glory, without the burden of needing to know the 'right' answer for Wednesday's quiz.
Science camps come in a wide variety of formats. There are day and residential camps focusing on every aspect of science and engineering you can imagine: robotics, chemistry, the environment, zoo animals, architecture, space science, and dinosaur fossils, to name just a few! These programs use fun and play to help teach and introduce science and engineering concepts. For example, a week-long day camp focusing on amusement park physics might have kids exploring centripetal force, and kinetic and potential energy, while riding real amusement park rides and building their own mini versions from LEGO blocks, buckets, string, or foam tubing. When done right, science camp is a combination that is super fun and engaging, and fosters learning and creativity.
Why Attend a Science Camp?
The advantages of attending a science camp or program can be summarized by a simple equation:
Science camps fall under the umbrella of what is commonly called informal science learning. Recent studies show that informal science learning is one of the most effective ways people learn science. Students who participate in these types of activities are more likely to have an above-average understanding of science, and pursue science-related careers.
For younger children, science camp can introduce them to many different areas of science and give them the confidence and inspiration to embrace science at school. Older students, who are already interested in science, may use science camp as a way to explore what a specific science-related career would be like, or to meet mentors and role models in the field. Such connections could lead to other opportunities, like internships, or become a featured event on a resume or college application.
For all students, science camp can be the opportunity to explore a branch of science that might not be available in their school, like marine biology or aeronautics, or to cover a topic more in depth than they'd otherwise be able to.
How Do I Choose a Summer Science Camp or Program?
Choosing a summer science camp is similar to choosing any other type of camp. You have your usual considerations about cost, distance from home, and amount of time, along with the question of finding the "best fit." For science camps, the "best fit" often boils down to figuring out what science topic(s) are of interest and finding a camp that does a good job of implementing those.
Figure out what science topic(s) are of interest.
Older children might already have a clear preference. Perhaps they're keen on video games and would love to go to a camp where they could design and program one. Or maybe they're into hiking and wildlife and are looking for an outdoor experience as a junior park ranger. Their hobbies and reading choices are often a good indicator of their interests.
Younger children might not yet have a clear preference. If they don't, then look for camps that offer a wide variety of science and engineering topics for them to explore. For example, a day camp that has a new science theme every week, or a balance camp that has a blend of science, arts, and physical activities.
Determine the level of "academics" you want.
Science camp should always be fun. A good science camp will allow students plenty of time to do hands-on exploration. This is part of the informal component. How much additional formal education a science camp has varies. Programs that incorporate lectures from distinguished professors or professionals might be appropriate, inspirational, and informative for older students who are interested in a specific field. Younger students are more likely to benefit from group activities, projects, and interactions with informed camp counselors rather than lectures.
Search for camps that fit your needs.
Once you know the range of science topics you'd like the camp to cover, the level of academics, the general geographic location, and the time and money commitments that are right for your family, you're ready to start searching.
Cogito and The Connectory are two great national science camp directories and a fantastic place to begin your search. Local parenting magazines and websites might also have lists of camps in your area.
Science museums, zoos, aquariums, planetariums, and state or national parks are also great resources, as they often run their own camps and/or link to science camps with similar interests.
Many colleges and universities also run summer science camps. A simple search for "summer science camp" on a local academic institution's website is a good way to find these.
Simple web browser searches can also turn up a wealth of information.
Make sure you choose a camp with qualified counselors.
Once you've located some camps that meet your search parameters, you should do some legwork to make sure that the counselors—the people the campers interact with all day long—are knowledgeable about science. For example, a knowledgeable counselor can transform a simple day of splashing in the creek into an adventurous treasure hunt for local plants and animals, and incorporate substantive and engaging lessons about food chains and the interconnectivity of different habitats.
Ask the camp or program director questions aimed at making sure the counselors have had ample formal training in the subject area(s) and excel at explaining the science in an engaging, age-appropriate manner.
Here's a Tip: Register Early!
While summer might seem a long way off, it's time to start thinking about summer camps. Many top camps offer "early bird" registration discounts in the January-March timeframe (check camp websites for specific camp deadlines).