Pass the S’Mores – Designing and Evaluating Summer Camps

Three adolescents drawing on a table outdoors.

July 10th, 2023

By Martha Merson and Elise Levin-Güracar, TERC

When we think of summer camp, we think of hot fields, sweaty sports, and swimming in a cold body of water. If we think of conversation, it might be after lights out giggling, not conversations about science identity or college majors, lab work, or whether to collect more data. 

However, STEM camps that awaken and nurture interest in science and careers are far more prevalent now than they were in the 20th century. They deliver authentic opportunities to do science in a creative, social way at a range of venues (including labs on college campuses). STEM camp leaders often design these out-of-school experiences with a number of goals in mind, including interest development, knowledge gain, and career exploration; at times introducing youth to ‘real’ scientists or ‘real’ laboratories for the purpose of drawing them into the culture and practices of professional scientists. They design and recruit with an eye to bringing marginalized populations into STEM. 

Participants have opportunities to experiment and delve into content that falls outside the standards-based curriculum or to pursue topics that are treated superficially in the classroom in more depth. By definition, these informal educational opportunities promote meaningful activities while avoiding grades, tests, and time constraints found in the typical school day (Gavin & Reis, 2003). The activities may vary or be quite singular in focus. They may or may not mix ages.

We made time to take a look at some STEM summer camps opportunities, evaluation instruments, and reports found in the Community Repository. For anyone planning a STEM summer camp, seeking funding for one, or, like us, who fantasizes about attending or researching impact, there is much to read up on.

We draw on related articles to highlight:

  • Design decisions intended to maximize this precious time away from school-year pressures 
  • Models intended to engage populations who are interested in science, but who are not proportionally enrolled in STEM degrees or participating the STEM focused jobs. One example includes Girlstart.
  • Efforts to engage participants with limited vision. Some summer camp providers have found ways to accommodate STEM students according to their abilities (e.g., using a multisensory approach including tactile models and audio cues for youth with visual impairments).
  • Surveys and other instruments to assess change among participants
fan in a lab
Photo by Allison Shelley/
The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Throughout the literature we reviewed, we read that summer camp programs allow for a safe space for failure, greater risk-taking, and freedom from anxieties related to failure and poor grades. Across the reports and summaries, we also found Gee’s concept of “affinity spaces” influences program design. Affinity spaces (Gee, 2004), are based on common interest in some form of science, people have a common endeavor or interest, enabling those of various skill levels to participate in the same activities, encouraging the development and sharing of specialized knowledge, honoring tacit knowledge, and allowing many different forms of participation and status in the space (Gee, 2004)”. Camp experiences designed around common interest with knowledgeable adults in various roles can facilitate identity and community formation that link youth with larger communities of scientists.

The repository has cataloged 300 entries, so this is just a taste of all you could read and learn from. We hope this article whets your appetite and if you know someone considering starting a program, refining an existing program, or tailoring camp programming for particular audiences youth, including youth with differing needs, you recommend the trove of resources on the repository. We also include information on available research instruments, including interviews and surveys. 

Although this article is not a comprehensive look at impact, many evaluation reports address questions of impact. We provide suggestions for further reading.

Read more about designing and evaluating summer camps

Design Decisions
Models intended to engage historically marginalized populations
Conclusion and Other Readings


Campbell Ault, P. (2009).  2009 Evaluation Report Salmon Camp Research Team Renewal. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. (2023). CRITFC Salmon Camp.

Colodner, D. (2014). Laurel Clark Earth Camp Experience: Using NASA Data to Teach Teens, Teachers, and the Public about Planet Earth through Programs and Interactive Displays Final Educational Activity Report. Alta Consulting, LLC.

Fields, D, A. (2009). What do students gain from a week at science camp? Youth perceptions and the design of immersive research-orientated astronomy camp. International Journal of Science Education, 31(2), 151–171.

Frost, J. & Wiest, L. (2007). Listening to the Girls: Participant Perceptions of the Confidence-Boosting Aspects of a Girls’ Summer Mathematics and Technology Camp. The Mathematics Educator, 17: 31-40.’_Summer_Mathematics_and_Technology_Camp

Gavin, M. K., & Reis, S. M. (2003). Helping teachers to encourage talented girls in mathematics. Gifted Child Today, 26(1), 32– 44, 64

Gee, J.P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2011). How to do discourse analysis: A toolkit. New York, NY: Routledge

Ghadiri, M., Francomano, D., Bellisario, K., & Pijanowski, B. (2018) Promoting STEM Interest and Connections to Nature Through a Soundscape Ecology Camp for Students With Visual Impairments. Connected Science Learning, 1(5).

Grack Nelson, A. (2018). Youth Teamwork Skills Survey: Survey and manual. St Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota.

Hay, K,E., & Barab, S.A. (2001). Constructivism in practice: A comparison and contrast of apprenticeship and constructionist learning environments. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(3), 281-322.

King, H. (2011). TScience camps and student identities in science. Relating research to practice.

Kong, X., Dabney, K. P., & Tai, R. H. (2014). The Association Between Science Summer Camps and Career Interest in Science and Engineering. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 4(1), 54-65.

Morgridge Institute. Summer Science Camp for Rural Wisconsin High School Students 2018: Demystifying Science Academic and Career Opportunities.

No Author (2019). Measuring Empathy: A Collaborative Assessment Project MECAP Measurement Tools.

Riedinger, K. Identity Development of Middle School Students as Learners of Science during Learning Conversations at an Informal Science Education Camp. A paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Indianapolis, Indiana. March 25-28, 2012.

Kera Collective. (2022). Program Evaluation: S.H.E. Can STEAM Summer Camp. Unpublishedreport. Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Wiest, L. R. (2004). Impact of a summer mathematics and technology program for middle school girls. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 10, 317– 339.

Zimmerman, H.T., Gamrat, C. & Hooper, S. (2014) Connecting out-of-school learning to home: Digital postcards from summer camp. TechTrends 58, 87–92.