Summer camps are a whole different beast from the camps of yesteryear. Instead of canoeing, there’s coding. S’mores over the fire? Nah, there’s space to be explored. Camps these days, especially the STEM-based kind, are sending kids home with knowledge, skills and the ability to change the world.
If you have a son like mine, he’s probably more into science than T-ball. My little guy had his first Fisher-Price Code-a-Pillar at the age of two, and just last week he engineered a disc launcher using wood chips and rubber bands. Since summer break is right around the corner and he’s intent on MacGyvering his way through life, I thought I’d investigate alternative camps with a focus on tech-based programs, including robotics, STEM and space. My son needs to be challenged and engaged in cerebral pursuits beyond macaroni bracelets and relay races. Before I started researching, I needed to fully understand what STEM is.
What is “STEM”?
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) ecompasses a slew of disciplines that not only represent a job market that’s outgrowing others by 10%, they’re also addressing jobs that haven’t been discovered yet. Kids as young as six are already enjoying these alternative summer programs with other kids who share a love of coding, programming and robotics.
Think your child is too young? Think again. STEM teaches kids to do more than just code:
- They gain critical thinking skills and learn how to problem solve at an early age
- STEM develops social and emotional growth in kids by instilling confidence and encouraging collaboration
- STEM can increase reading and writing skills in your child as he gets older.
Chris Tucker, curriculum consultant and technological education teacher at York Region Board of Education in Toronto Ontario, is a huge proponent of STEM-based learning and its impact on kids.
“Students ideate and evaluate the impact of their design,” he tells Parentology. “They have to test, code, revamp, add on, adjust, etc.”
With lots of summer programs promoting this mindset now, Tucker, who’s also a member of the Science Teachers Association of Ontario, says kids who develop those “21st Century competencies” have a greater chance of success later in life. “Kids are more creative in their solutioning, and collaborative beyond the basic academic framework.”
Here are some summer camps that teach lifelong skills and are fun to boot:
Make, play, code. LRF camps combine coding, electronics and art making (STEAM) in a fun and engaging way. Tucker says adding art to STEM-based learning creates another layer to critical thinking. “You’re bridging and leveraging the art process,” he points out. “It’s learning the big picture, how to problem solve and be creative in a digital space.” This week-long summer camp is aimed at kids seven to 10 years old and focuses on electronics, robotics, and applying design skills towards making robot board games.
MakerKids is “the #1 STEM program for kids and the first in the world to offer programs on robotics, coding and Minecraft”. Jennifer Turliuk, the CEO and creator of MakerKids, identified a need for alternative programs for kids early on.
MakerKids isn’t about a single mindset or skill; it helps kids build confidence with technology. “If you can convince someone they’re a leader when they’re a child, they’ll carry that with them for the rest of their life,” Turliuk said in her keynote speech at Maker Faire in Rome.
MakerKids summer camps encourage collaboration and creativity outside of a school setting, where technology curriculum can be very prescriptive. The camp’s weeklong sessions are available to grades 1 through 8.
Touted as the place where art “collides” with technology, learning and collaboration, Sprouts is leading the way in the “maker movement” (learning through doing). Kids age eight to 12 are encouraged to “tinker”, design, explore and express themselves creatively.
There’s a full array of programs at this summer day camp program, including hands-on STEM skill development and laser tag, as well as plenty of outdoor activities such as capture the flag and water balloon relays for a fully-immersed summer experience. Registration is available on a weekly basis.
Whether training for a moon landing or heading to the International Space Station, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama (now called “Rocket City”) is the place to orbit around summer STEM missions. While Space Camp is offered from January to November, they run weeklong overnight camps from May to August for kids ages nine through 18.
Patricia Ammons, director of communications for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, is passionate about the summer camp program and the skills children develop there. “Space is happening and exciting,” she affirms to Parentology. “There’s a lot of value in getting kids interested in STEM subjects.”
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center supports the propulsion work at NASA (yes, that NASA) and was ground zero for the space program in its early days. Their Robotics program (also offered as a summer camp) is relatively new, and focuses on engineering as it applies to the space program.
In addition, they’ve added an entrepreneurial component. Ammons emphasizes the life skill applications: “Kids get supporters for their program; get funding for their projects. They’re tasked with real-world scenarios to get real-world support, then we fit it in with the mission-based program.”
Space Camp impacts “every corner of space exploration: geology, astronomy, propulsion engineering, mission control, you name it,” Ammons says. It also includes a graduation ceremony and certificate (a five-time graduate of this program is currently housed in the International Space Station.).
The Benefit of Alternative Summer Camps
While alternative camps may appear on the surface as thinly-veiled workforce placement, there’s no denying the importance of basic STEM skills: collaboration, project-based work, collective knowledge and problem solving. “Everyone has a chance to shine and show what they’re best at,” Ammons says.
There’s inherent value in building self-esteem and placing children together with common interests. Tucker notes how students labelled “problematic” who didn’t regularly attend school always showed up for his classes. “They came to life there,” he says. “The work was really hands-on, creative and project-based. I didn’t see the problems everyone else was seeing.”
Ammons concurs. “[A child] would struggle in school, but by the time they left our camp would be so much more self-confident and have built lifetime friends. They’d feel like ‘These kids understand what I’m interested in. There’s a place for me here!’”
Alternative camps that focus on tech aren’t inherently about kids becoming “programmers” or “astronauts”. They’re about making kids digitally literate and providing alternative material for creative output. Understandably, Ammons worries the current generation of children don’t have the skills they’ll need as adults to work as a team. “It took 400,000 people to put 12 men on the moon. You’re here to be a team member. It’s great that you ‘know things’ — are you going to get there by yourself?”
Ammons continues, “There’s a desperate need for explorers, scientists, engineers – the world depends on it.”
Chris Tucker, Curriculum Consultant and Technological Education Teacher
Patricia Ammons, director of communications for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Jennifer Turliuk, the proud CEO and creator of MakerKids (from website)
Little Robot Friends
Sprouts Maker Space Tech Lab
Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education: Considerations for STEM Education from PreK through Grade 3
Makezine: How to Remake the World by Making with Kids