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Full STEM Ahead: A New Kind of Summer Camp

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Who wants to do engineering and math projects over the summer? Everyone. Camp directors say kids as young as 3 are embracing science, technology, engineering and math programs. Some credit Gov. Jack Markell’s creation of the Delaware STEM Council in 2010. Others point to technological advances that boost the kid user-friendliness of many tools and projects. Whatever the cause, demand is rising for STEM programs. Summer camps throughout Delaware are overflowing with geeky goodness.

Schools that run summer camps—Tatnall, Wilmington Friends, Wilmington Montessori, Tower Hill and others—offer STEM programs as electives or specialty weeks. Sharon Reynolds is Tower Hill’s director of summer programs and a long-time science teacher, which gives her a unique view on STEM. “That’s a new term, but science is all around us and always has been,” Reynolds says. “Now, we have new tools with which to answer kids’ unending questions about how the world works and take their learning to the next level.”

Among the offerings at Tower Hill are kid-friendly computer languages like Scratch and mod design via the Minecraft game. “I had no clue what a mod is or what Minecraft is,” Reynolds admits. “The kids looked at me like, duh.” 

Not all STEM courses feature modern technology. Reynolds loves old-school science like Alka-Seltzer bottle rockets and high-flying kites. “STEM isn’t just book learning, but doing,” she says. “Instead of being told how or why something exists, kids can discover it for themselves. That’s the creative thinking part of science. Really, I think that’s the most fun of all.”

Melissa Jurist agrees. As academic program manager of K-12 education for the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, Jurist has been running the school’s summer science programs for five years. Her career includes hanging out with Big Bird. (Jurist once designed a science curriculum for “Sesame Street.”) Her fun-with-science attitude is evident in her approach to UD’s STEM camps. “My goal was to create a nerd heaven,” she says. “I wanted to do a lot of things that were outside the box sprinkled with a little bit of mischief.”

Like Reynolds, Jurist takes an experiential approach to STEM. “A lot of kids think there’s a thing called STEM, and it exists in a book and a lab,” she says. “I want them to look at the world and see it’s all STEM.”

To that end, Jurist teaches the math behind air hockey and the fluid dynamics of body wash. She has had kids dissect everyday things like chicken legs. “The project was dissecting food you might eat for dinner,” she says. “We worked with a chicken leg, a raw one. Does that sound weird? It was actually fascinating.

Then there are the cow knees. They got dissected, too. “Before you think that’s insane, I’ll explain that it maps onto research being done at UD into the friction in joints,” Jurist says. “I had scientists come in and talk about the friction formula and apply it to that week of camp.

Scalpels aren’t the only tools used at UD’s STEM camps. Power tools—drills, soldering tools, fasteners—are on the lesson plan every week for kids who are in third grade and older. “Engineering isn’t just programming a computer, it’s also building it,” Jurist says. “It’s the maker-tinkerer aspect, which is a critical part of STEM. It’s an amazing sight to see an 8-year-old girl revving a power drill and building something that she designed.”

Creative problem solving is what’s really being taught, Jurist explains. “There’s not one path to a right answer,” she says. “The point is learning to work on it. There’s also the fail factor. If something doesn’t work, don’t worry about it. Regroup and redesign. That’s the way of the world.”

That same philosophy backs the STEM camps at Delaware Technical Community College. More than 1,000 kids attend 50 camps at DTCC’s Wilmington, Dover, Georgetown and Stanton campuses. Kids as young as 4 are introduced to everything from microscopes to computers. By age 6 they produce videos on iPads. Nine-year-olds use Raspberry Pi computer programming to create electronics projects.  

Justina Sapna, DTCC’s vice president for academic affairs, says that though the focus is on fun, it’s also on the future. DTCC syncs its programs with recommendations from its workforce development directors and its representative on the state’s STEM Council. The idea, Sapna explains, is to coordinate summer camps with what kids will learn in school and prepare them for careers.

Activities such as building solar-powered race cars, exploring watersheds and studying wind turbines were added to the summer offerings because there is a rising demand for qualified employees in the clean energy field. “Young kids may not yet be thinking about their careers, but we want to get them comfortable working with the technologies of the future,” Sapna says. 

Delaware State University offers more than 20 STEM programs at three of its campuses. 

Robotics will be the wave of the future if Eric Cheek has anything to say about it. Cheek is associate vice president of continuing education and summer programs at Delaware State University, and his voice rises with excitement when he talks about Lego Mindstorms kits of hardware and software that can be turned into everything from humanoid robots to motorized vehicles. Cheek sees Mindstorms as a full STEM meal with a heaping helping of creativity as a dessert that turns kids into Master Builders for whom everything is awesome.

And these are wee ones. Cheek oversees STEM summer programs for kids in grades K-8. He started in 2012 with one robotics camp and now has more than 20 programs at DSU’s Dover, Wilmington and Georgetown campuses. Each has many STEM offerings, from aviation and food biotechnology to chemistry and 3-D modeling. “Next on my list is a Fun With Physics camp,” Cheek says. “If you think that kids in seventh and eighth grade aren’t interested in physics, I have some really great kids who say otherwise.”

All of this learning is great, but isn’t camp supposed to be more outdoorsy? Hiking, swimming and the like? Those activities are incorporated into many STEM camps, especially at YMCA camps across Delaware. “Half of the day is spent inside on computers and the other half is outside in nature,” says Beth Ohline, senior child development director at the Bear-Glasgow YMCA branch in Newark. Ohline says that YMCA’s STEM electives are very popular. “Those weeks sell out every summer,” she says. “But whether the kids are inside or outside, we instill our character values into all of our programming. I don’t see a difference in technology from sports. We’re preparing these kids for the future, whatever it holds.” 

Check out our 2016 listings of summer camps here.

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