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This summer, students will face learning loss like never before. Usually, teachers expect to deal with a fair amount of “summer slide” when students return in the fall. Now, however, students who fell behind due to the pandemic risk falling even further behind during summer vacation.
STEM THE LEARNING LOSS WITH STEM SUMMER CAMPS
But there are ways to prevent summer slide and even help students gain back what they lost from the previous year – and some of them can even be fun! Specifically, STEM summer camps are a great way to reengage students in learning. From aerospace to structures, from solar cars to siege machines, and from makerspace projects to coding and robotics, the possibilities for themed STEM camps are as wide open as the great outdoors. Never held a STEM camp before? No worries. We enlisted members of The Ambassador Group (TAG) at Pitsco to provide some tips on how to keep students learning all summer long – and have fun doing it!
DON’T GO IT ALONE
One of the main themes from our TAG folks was that it’s best to enlist help. “Rely on others for help,” advises Denise Wright. “I had a few assistants during summer camp, which makes things much easier.” Everton Henriques agrees, noting that getting older student volunteers to help aids in engagement. “My recommendation for any teachers desiring to host a camp would be to actively include competent older student counselors to be the main facilitators,” he said. “They really capture the attention of the younger campers and pretty much define what is ‘cool’ and what is not. . . . A bunch of student counselors can provide a greater degree of individual attention, provide energy, and learn a lot themselves from the experience!”
BE PREPARED – BUT FLEXIBLE
As with any type of program or activity, you’ll want to be well organized and prepared. But, as with most summer activities, STEM summer camps should also be as laid back as possible to give students time to explore their interests in a stress-free environment. “Giving students some unstructured time is great,” says Natalie Vanderbeck. “Camp should be fun and not a stressful experience for students!”
“My favorite part of leading the robotics portion of the camp is the fact that we don’t have to worry about standard-driven observations, lesson plans, or the usual tight time constraints of a normal school day,” says Henriques. “Students can truly engage the equipment how they want to.”
As far as organization goes, preparation can go a long way toward making sure things run smoothly. “Have a backup plan always,” advises Jessica Malloy. “Projects are probably going to take longer than anticipated.” James Jones agreed. “Overplan,” he recommends. “A Plan A without a Plan B (and maybe a Plan C) is no plan at all.”
Many TAG members advise preparing for both the expected as well as for the unforeseen. Jones suggests waivers and detailed paperwork for each student, for example. “You need as much information on each student as possible in case of an emergency,” he says. Teresia Harrison suggests you also get photo permission so you can then “post photos in a private source for parents to see.”
And definitely don’t forget about the food! “Snacks are a must,” says Malloy. Harrison agrees. “Kids need nutrition – often. So, plan snacks and meals accordingly. If at all possible, make the snacks/meals part of the learning experience,” she suggests.
The more preparation you make up front, the easier it is to go with the flow when things don’t go as planned.
IDEAS TO KEEP STUDENTS ENGAGED
In addition to being prepared and allowing for free time and flexibility, it’s also a good idea to give students several options to explore. “I’ve learned it is best to give students options and keep things moving,” says Vanderbeck. “We know that active students are more engaged, but during the summer, I have found this is even more true. Students like to be moving, participating in hands-on experiences, learning about things that can make real-world connections, and having time to explore.”
Along those lines, you’re sure to find some winning ideas for your STEM camp among these:
- Consider geocaching and model rocketry: “I love setting up a STEM geocaching unit with 30+ hides on our school property. Model rocketry is also a good unit for summer where we can be a bit more open-ended with the kits. . . .” – Dave Shafer
- Create options: “Be diverse in your offerings throughout the camp so you reach the interests of more students.” – Teresia Harrison
- Connect with local businesses: “In one of the camps I led, we had business partners come in and do STEM and other projects with the students. The students built planes, roller coasters, solar cars, robots, 3-D printing, and much more.” – Susan Gaboriau
- Team up with your fellow teachers: “I team up with three other colleagues to host our annual Summer STEAM Camp, where we offer daily classes in music production, TV studio, CAD, and robotics.” – Everton Henriques
- Empower girls: “I always lead a Gadget Girls camp for girls in Grades 3-5 who are interested in engineering and STEM. It’s girls only, and it is a great way to build confidence in girls and get them really interested in math and science.” – Jessica Malloy
- Check out Pitsco: “I often order all camp supplies from Pitsco. They have things that are a saving grace for planning. I usually start with a theme and go from there. If teaching flight, they have everything from rockets to hot-air balloons. My students love the hot-air balloons. The teacher support videos made it so much easier to guide my students. Make a list and open the catalog – everything is there for the first camp and refills for the next camp. Call Pitsco and speak with a representative who can help you stay in your price point and learning goals.” – Lisa Lewis
GET THE WORD OUT!
Another crucial aspect to a successful STEM camp is communication, both before and after the event. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure parents know what their kids will be doing, but our TAG members suggest getting creative with your interactions. “Creating a parent communication hub [where parents can] keep in touch and you can provide personal positive messages about students’ accomplishments” can go a long way toward future support, says LeAnne Steelman. “A lot of support for extracurriculars comes from word-of-mouth. Both of these [social media and word-of-mouth] are very helpful for support such as donations and volunteers.” Harrison agrees. “When parents/grandparents and students are talking about camp weeks and years later and thanking you for providing impactful learning experiences, that is when [you] know [your] efforts were worth it.”
Beyond that, it’s also a good idea to let the community know about the exciting things your students will be learning. “Get the local paper out to see what you are doing,” says Michael Clark. “That way you can use that experience to help continue STEM initiatives throughout the school year.”
Following up with students and parents after camp is another good way to keep ideas flowing and your STEM camp at the forefront. “Student choice is important,” says Harrison. “Survey (formally and/or informally) staff, students, and parents to determine the quality of the camp and guide you in further camps. Ask for written responses (i.e., ‘What was your favorite activity during the week and why?’) so these can be used to advertise future camps.”
So, now that you have a plan, don’t be afraid to jump in and create a great STEM camp experience for your students! Not only will it help curb any learning loss, but it will also keep your STEM program in the minds of students, parents, and administrators year-round.
If you need some help getting started, check out Pitsco’s brochure on out-of-school experiences at Pitsco.com/Camps.