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Main Line Summer Camps with a STEM Slant

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Robotics, urban planning and software coding … at summer camp? Better get used to it. Area camps have a lot of these and other programs designed to appeal to a growing number of tech-savvy—and tech-hungry—kids. 

The Westtown School is offering even more choices at its state-of-the-art Science Institute, and Episcopal Academy’s Center for Growth & Innovation is celebrating its second summer. At Future Stars, a camp debuting this summer at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, kids can specialize in digital photography and blogging. They can also use GPS-enabled devices for modern-day orienteering excursions. Video technology will be the focus of another Future Stars offering, where kids create their own entertainment news show. 

Being old has its benefits. Founded in 1982, Emagination was one of the first “nerd camps” in the country, and it still provides campers with software and hardware that are industry-standard in many fields. Emagination operates summer camps on five college campuses, including Rosemont College. Owner Craig Whiting explains the explosion in science, math and technology programs. “There is a renewed interest in STEM courses, so that brings more kids to those subjects,” he says. “But a certain population of kids is already interested in those things and has been pursuing technology interests on their own, outside of school. They’re likely to be more advanced than other kids their age and are looking for summer programs that meet their skill level.” 

Then there’s the phenomenon of Minecraft, one of the best-selling videogames of all time. Minecrafting has been added to Westtown’s 2015 summer lineup for seventh- and eighth-graders. “The game is oriented around coding, so kids learn how to do that to succeed at the game,” says Keith Stater, director of auxiliary programs at Westtown. “Minecraft engages their creativity and gives them experience working in teams … And it’s fun.”

That “coding is cool” mentality is a reality for kids who grew up idolizing Internet mogul Mark Zuckerberg and other billionaire nerds. Parents, however, might have trouble relating to what their kids are doing at camp. Still, there’s no denying that they’re developing what will be valuable job skills. “We don’t focus solely on preparing them for the job market, but kids do experience what it would be like to work at a company with highly skilled colleagues who push you to that next level,” Stater says.

And being a techie whiz is a far more marketable skill than, say, volleyball.

To that end, Westtown is introducing two new summer programs for high-school-aged kids. CNC milling, 3-D printing and laser printing are just a few of the tools kids will use in “Design Engineering for Social Change,” where they’ll create products to solve social problems. And “Reimagining the 21st Century City” is for campers interested in urban planning. “They’ll develop a business plan for a product that offers an authentic solution for a specific urban problem,” Stater says. “The business plan itself will incorporate the technology used in architecture and urban design.”

Robotics is big at EA’s Center for Growth & Innovation, where kids build with state-of-the-art technologies like Arduino microcircuit boards and Rasp-berry Pi mini-computers. The latter is also a component of the Kano kits second-graders are using to build personalized computers, which include keyboards, speakers and other DIY necessities that young Steve Wozniaks love.

All of this sounds interesting. But is it fun? Absolutely. “These kids actually enjoy these brain games, and they’re flocking to camps to be around other kids who like the same things,” Emagination’s Whiting says. “Some kids bond over sports—these kids bond over technology.”

But is more screen time really what they need? Camp directors understand that concern, and they do incorporate physical activities into the kids’ schedules. Westtown and EA’s camps maximize the schools’ campuses. At Emagination, kids spend half the day outdoors, playing “retro games” like Ultimate Frisbee, capture the flag and kickball. But the goal is bonding, not competition. Whiting explains that socialization and social development are core objectives of Emagination’s programs. 

And what about girls? “We have incredibly equal gender representation across our technology programs,” says Catherine Hall, EA’s assistant head of school. “Providing opportunities for girls is one of our core values.”

Girls comprise less than half the kids. “It’s more like 15- to 20-percent girls,” Whiting says. “But that’s reflective of the percentages of girls in high school and college science or math programs. I will say that we have more girls now than we’ve had in years past. They completely hold their own with the boys. The girls here rock. I think that provides a good lesson to the boys about the intellectual equality of women, and they’ll take that lesson into the workplace with them.”

Whiting hopes campers will learn other lessons about living in the real world. “Ours are overnight camps, and in the evenings, we break into small groups, where campers are mentored by young adults who are just like them—or were,” he says. “They talk, they share, and they understand one another. Our kids tend to be quite bright, but some are less developed socially. We want them to feel that Emagination is a place where they’re safe, nurtured and accepted.”

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