Designing and Evaluating Summer Camps: Models intended to engage historically marginalized populations


Girlstart Insights

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Girlstart offers engaging, impactful STEM-focused week-long summer day camps for girls entering 4th-8th grade in Austin and several cities around the country. In an effort to interest girls who haven’t already decided they want to be in STEM, Girlstart creates fun, meaningful,  and relevant themes, like Keep Girlstart Weird (a play on Keep Austin Weird) which includes building a solar food truck competing in a robotic Formula 1 race, learning about local bat colonies, and more. Themes change yearly to be innovative and timely; for example, they offered an Olympics program during the year of the Summer Olympics.

From activity career connections to guest speakers, every camp highlights women who work in STEM for the girls to learn about. Girlstart features a diverse array of women, broadening the participants’ view of who belongs in STEM. Girlstart staff does this based on research that “when young girls see somebody who looks like them working in STEM, it really helps them: we want them to see the pathways that are open to them, to see themselves being able to do similar work.” Camp programming relates back to state STEM standards but the Girlstart summer camp design team stays flexible in meeting standards, allowing them to choose themes and activities they believe participants will relate to and have fun engaging with.

journal page
An example journal page from Girlstart

Girlstart offers annual in-depth training for frontline staff and sends at least one staff member to the National American Camp Association conference. In real-time, they evaluate and modify offerings by:

  • Providing time for frontline staff to reflect on each camp session
  • Implementing surveys of students, parents, and frontline staff

This feedback has influenced their practice. After recreating their camper engineering journal experience to better facility programming during COVID, they saw how the new journal format was a helpful tool and have continued to integrate it into their in-person camps sessions. They also heard from the frontline staff that they wanted more support in classroom management. Girlstart has started bringing in additional resources on this to their training.

Listening to the Girls: Participant Perceptions of the Confidence-Boosting Aspects of a Girls’ Summer Mathematics and Technology Camp

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Summer camp experiences designed for girls aren’t a recent innovation. A 2007 study examined how girls of diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds perceived the development of their confidence and mathematical skills as a result of participating in the Girls’ Summer Mathematics and Technology Camp in northern Nevada. Designed a five-day residential summer camp program for females, students of color, and students of low socioeconomic status (SES), who are often underserved or marginalized in mathematics education, programming took place on an urban university campus in Northern Nevada. Researchers explained the similarities and differences of the perceptions of each group, as well as the implications for classroom environments and further research. An earlier study of the camp experience showed improvement in participants’ confidence, knowledge and skills, motivation, and effort in mathematics (Wiest 2004). Interviews with some of the participants found that the vast majority reported attendance at Math Camp increased their confidence in mathematics in general and in regard to their fall mathematics class participation. 

In these interviews girls mentioned appreciating the atmosphere of the camp, “in which they felt a connection with the others in the group rather than feeling isolated or in competition with them” (Frost & Wiest, 2007, pg 36). The girls also mentioned feeling that “they shared common attributes and experiences with other girls in their groups, such as similar abilities and difficulties in mathematics” (Frost & Wiest, 2007, pg 36). 

The camp’s stated goals were to “improve girls’ knowledge, skills, dispositions, and participation in mathematics and technology.” Students worked on math over the course of the program, and in some cases connected the math to science, for example finding the mean, median, mode of their heart rates. Students were exposed to female role models in the form of staff members and a guest speaker, and learned about historically famous women.

Identity Development of Middle School Students as Learners of Science at an Informal Science Education Camp

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Conversations at camp may be more than silly exchanges or processing scary ghost stories. Reidinger’s research suggests that conversations at science camp can play a role in influencing science learner identity development. 

This qualitative study focused on middle school students’ identity development as science learners during the 4-day, dorm-based overnight science camp program at the Marine Science Consortium (MSC) for middle school students. Identity in this study was defined as becoming and being recognized as a certain type of person, with attention to individual traits recognized through discourse with other individuals (Gee, 2005; 2011). Reidlinger observed conversations during science activities and facilitated a focus group.

The central research question asked about the role of conversation in influencing science learner identity development during an informal science education camp. Participants used language to: 

  • Make sense of science content
  • Position themselves
  • Align their discourse and practices with science
  • Communicate with others which resulted in engagement
  • Re-negotiate power
  • See others in new ways. 

The findings of this research support and extend the research literature on identity, learning conversations and science camp programs. (Reidlinger, 2012)

Connecting out-of-school learning to home: Digital postcards from summer camp

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Some camp designs were more intentional than others in integrating campers’ home lives and culture. For example, Heather Toomey Zimmerman and her research team at Penn State sought to design a tool that exploited mobile devices to increase parents’ connection to out of school time activities. The Digital Postcard Maker engaged children in selecting a photo and writing a message to their parents. Some campers struggled with the task and thus the instructions were revised to guide and streamline the process. In follow up with parents, researchers found the postcards sparked conversations about environmental science. 

Salmon Camp Research Team: A Native American Technology, Research and Science Career Exposure Program

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Partners that launched The “Salmon Research Team: A Native American Technology, Research and Science Career Exposure Program” organized summer camp experiences to promote interest in environmental careers. 

The project featured advanced scientific technology and traditional ecological knowledge as components of career opportunities in sustainable land management. 

Middle school and high school students of mostly first-generation college-bound students with Native American affiliations in reservation, rural and urban areas worked closely with Native American and other scientists and resource managers throughout the Northwest who use advanced technologies in salmon recovery efforts. Camp was just one component as students also attended a one-week spring break program, and seven weekends of residential programs during the school year. 

Salmon Camp is another example of a camp that featured a connection to community life. The participation of elders and tribal researchers served as experts and role models. Families were invited to events like salmon bakes. An array of partners supported the field research experience including, for example, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Redwood National State Park, colleges and academic institutions. Salmon Camp continues under the auspices of four tribal organizations.