Designing and Evaluating Summer Camps: Design Decisions

Camp experiences are time-limited, some as short as a partial week. Nevertheless, they promise transformative experiences. Below we discuss several projects with different audiences and priorities. By design, they seek to increase knowledge and facilitate career exploration among other goals like developing participants’ interests. STEM camps in one way or another acquaint campers with the culture of western science. STEM camp designers choose a mix of activities or a single focus for hands-on learning. Most if not all of the ones we have encountered introduce youth to practicing scientists, while a subset actually run their programs on college campuses with easy access laboratories.


Science camps and student identities in science

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The Advanced Astronomy Camp, directed by an astronomer at the University of Arizona, offered a ‘proof of concept’ that constructivist and cognitive apprenticeship learning models can be integrated into a single informal science program (King, 2011 and Fields, 2009). Rather than choosing either start-to-finish youth-generated research projects or integrating youth into a community of professional scientists (Hay & Barab, 2001), Advanced Astronomy Camp united the two and added a further element of community based on a common interest in astronomy.

Among the perceived benefits that students described were peer relationships, personal autonomy, positive relationships with staff, and deepened science knowledge. Campers’ self-reports illuminated that science learning was not localized to either the research projects, the association with staff at various stages of becoming scientists, or in conversation with their peers but was attributed to all three.

At Advanced Astronomy Camp, campers had opportunities to master a tool or a piece of technology. This increased campers’  sense of ownership, expertise, and feeling of belonging.

In an important way, what it means to be an astronomer is to have expertise at using the equipment that astronomers use to explore space. The staff … purposefully encouraged the campers to operate the telescopes and high-tech instruments such as the spectrometer without assistance.  Youth spoke with pride in their abilities to manage specific kinds ‘better than some astronomers’ (Kevin). diSessa (2000) points out that  within a scientific community, ‘Tools are badges of membership, symbols of commitment and accomplishment’ (p. 39). As campers noted in their interviews, this opportunity to develop skill with professional tools sufficient to explore a personally meaningful research question was a crucial feature of the camp.

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

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Science Summer Camps is one example of a design that brought scientists in to present and Summer Science Camps gave participants a variety types of experiences with science, including some that weren’t possible to do at their own schools. 

During the camp, participants: 

  • Observed lab demonstrations
  • Attended lectures
  • Learned about new science topics and careers
  • Went on campus and lab tours
  • Designed lab experiments
  • Worked with scientists
  • Applied what they learned at school in the lab
  • Saw cutting-edge science in action
  • Experienced labs they couldn’t have had at their own school. 

Science Summer Camps have been offered by the Morgridge Institute for Research at the Discovery Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Since 2007, more than 300 students from rural Wisconsin high schools have attended the camp. 

Campers gave positive responses through surveys about the authenticity of presenters, the location of the camp on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, and opportunities to discover and apply science and to see science in action. When asked what value scientist presenters brought to their experience, campers said that the presenters felt like ‘real people’ with whom they could connect, who supported a collaborative learning experience, and who welcomed and accepted them as part of the science community. 

Responses also indicated that camp experiences influenced the way students and teachers thought about science. Most students said that camp experiences and getting to know scientists greatly influenced how much they like and value science, the likelihood they will go to college, and the likelihood they will study science at college. 

Press Photo Credit: Center for Global Soundscapes

Promoting STEM Interest and Connections to Nature Through a Soundscape Ecology Camp for Students With Visual Impairments

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In the design of a 5-day camp experience for visually impaired youth ages 14-22, project leaders at Purdue University’s Center for Global Soundscapes sought to flip the paradigm of disability by introducing students to a field where their heightened aural skills were a unique asset. They saw the potential for their approach to be applied to other topics for students of varying abilities. The camp program follows an inquiry-based learning approach to explore concepts fundamental to soundscape ecology.

Activities were familiar at first and based on everyday experiences with sound, but then gradually became more challenging throughout the duration of the camp based on a scaffolding approach that helps students build knowledge and gain confidence in practicing science. Assessments showed that the soundscape camp contributed to students’ heightened ecological and scientific knowledge and applied understanding of scientific practices. Meanwhile, the experience increased students’ appreciation for nature, motivation toward active listening, and interest in STEM- and sound-related careers.

Throughout the camp, students gained an applied understanding of scientific practices. Students conducted their own soundscape research projects and worked in teams to define relevant research questions. Each team used recordings as data to design its own study, employing acquired soundscape concepts to analyze their data and draw conclusions about their research questions. For instance, one group posed the question, “What is the difference in soundscape diversity between two habitats—a pond and a garden?

Project leaders noted that “teaching students with visual impairments presents certain challenges, especially concerning gathering data outdoors and conveying concepts that are typically presented through visual media.” They also noted that students focused :their attention on what natural sounds mean and how they are used by scientists. Exposure … changed the way in which students perceived their environments.”