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Fun First, Learning Second | STEM educational camps offer summer school without pressure—no homework, no tests. By Tara Taylor

'There's 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it."

—From Phineas and Ferb Theme Song

No kid wants to hear that they are going to be spending their summer vacation learning, but for children who have fallen behind during the school year, the summer can mean more time in a classroom. Districts often select students for summer school based upon need, but what about those kids who are only a little bit behind? Or kids who are only behind in a single subject?

For parents who are looking to strengthen their child's classroom skills or get a head start on the upcoming year, educational summer camps are a great way to make up lost ground. For many students, the largest gap is in math and science.

There are plenty of summer programs throughout the East Bay that offer curriculum that could be found at any elementary school, but without the pressure of homework and tests. And convincing kids to attend isn't hard work since most these educational camps focus on fun first, then learning.

STEM Classes, Disguised

Many schools are pushing STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—education. But between budget cuts and standardized testing, many kids miss out on the cool things that STEM education has to offer, and summer camps can fill that void.

Summer camps don't rely on state and federal budgeting, which often affects the supplies on hand and the amount of kids in the classroom. Summer camps limit the amount of campers, so kids are able to get the instruction needed to understand larger science and math concepts, and there are always tons of supplies to perform an experiment with.

In a school setting, many students feel pressured, resulting in slipping grades and indifference in certain subjects. Parents have a hard time pushing extra math or science classes, but when the math lesson is hidden between creating a rocket ship or discovering how 3-D printing works, the extra math doesn't seem so daunting.

"This [camp] can impact a kid's ability to graduate high school," said Ed Caballero, co-founder and executive director of Edventure More, or EDMO, a science, technology, and nature camp. EDMO camps tackle coding with Minecraft and engineering and physics with a camp that incorporates toys. "Kids of all academic levels respond well."

Getting Hands On

Camp directors adamantly agree that the only way for kids to let go of the negative self-talk of "I am not good at (fill in the blank)" is by rolling up their sleeves and creating something that gets them excited. You will find activities like engineering with Legos or even getting all muddy in the name of science are rarely pooh-poohed by kids.

The messy part is what draws most campers to Sarah's Science Camp, a nature camp in Berkeley and Oakland that has been around for two decades. At Sarah's Science camps, kids get the opportunity to run around and explore the great outdoors with the ultimate goal of becoming a junior biologist. Combined with projects that construct things just to break them apart, the camp is a hit with kids of all ages.

"We were makers before the maker movement came about," laughed Sarah Shaffer, the founder of Sarah's Science.

Shaffer strongly believes that allowing kids to get creative with learning gets kids motivated to dive deeper into subjects. "They all love doing science—if it's presented right," she exclaimed.

It is sneaky, but the science part is usually masked with a larger theme that attracts kids. "They are doing a fun project, and we are doing the science around it," Shaffer said.

Sarah's Science is not alone in disguising the learning with themes kids are drawn to. Many educational summer camps rely heavily on projects that don't appear too scientific to spark learning.

"Science is inherently awesome," said Michael Finnegan, founder of QuantumCamp, a math and science camp in Berkeley that focuses on breaking down large theories into exciting games and projects. "There's not one kid who doesn't like doing explosions," he said.

It's All in the Planning

Caballero began EDMO by partnering with museums to structure a learning summer camp where kids could explore larger concepts. The camp scaffolds the curriculum to start with small skill builders at the beginning of each week and then culminates with a big project at the end, combining all the campers' new science skills.

"The way we teach is we want the kids to have ownership over their learning," said Caballero, adding that much of the time counselors are showing kids how to collaborate and problem solve as a group.

Caballero is not the only one who uses the slow-build method to get kids learning.

At Sarah's Science, there is a team of people developing new activities for the kids. Every year, the team scratches what was done the year before to come up with more than 70 individually designed projects incorporated into themes like "Go Green" or "Dragons and Fairies."

Camp directors look to experienced science and math educators, but they also rely on the Next Generation Science Standards to build the summer programs. This way kids are getting a boost that will ripple throughout the coming school year.

"I am like an anti-standards guy, but NGSS is actually pretty good," said Finnegan, adding that if the standards are applied in the right setting, kids will thrive. "No homework, no tests; it's just fun, relaxed kids doing science."


Learning is fun at Sarah's Science. Photo courtesy Sarah's Science.


Camp Edventure More: Camps throughout the East Bay with focuses on science, technology, and nature for preschool through eighth-grade students.

Camp Galileo: Camps throughout the East Bay focusing on STEM education for pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Lawrence Hall of Science: Camps held at the science museum in Berkeley; camps expand on classroom learning for grades kindergarten through six.

QuantumCamp: Camps in Berkeley and Palo Alto with a focus on physics, chemistry, biology, and civil engineering for grades first through eighth.

Sarah's Science: Camps in Berkeley and Oakland with a nature theme for ages 5-16.