Summer STEM Exploration: Hands-On Science Fun for Middle Schoolers

The first full week of summer is done! Not that we’re trying to rush through it, but this week was a transition week, with new schedules and activities that can be hard on all of us. Plus, we added a new dog to the family, had a birthday, and my daughter started driver’s training. It’s been a week.

STEM camp was a high point.

My son, who started the week at age 11 and ended it at age 12, was a STEM Explorer through a camp run by Science from Scientists at Foothill College. The program is geared toward middle schoolers and isn’t a camp with cheers and outdoor games, instead, it tackled a different STEM-related topic each day with new projects to introduce new ideas, build new skills, and keep the material fresh.

The Programming
Camp this week had a little bit of everything, like a STEM sampler platter. Remarkably, and refreshingly, screens were not the center of their day. By making things fun and hands-on, the kids worked together to try, collect, and test, without staring at something doing the work for them.

When my son jumped into the car at the end of day one, he excitedly told me about the day, which focused on space and engineering. They had to survive a 60-mile expedition on the moon (hypothetically, obvi), and as a team, they had to figure which items to pack to survive the trip to their lunar base. He talked about the group working out ideas, how they had to compromise, and how they reached their final decisions. The good news was that according to information from NASA, his group prioritized the right things to physically make the trek and survive.

Day two was the highlight for my son: CSI and forensics. He likes solving a crime and the story that involved a candy theft. They learned how to lift fingerprints and utilize chromatography. “We got information from the ink!” is how he explained it to me.

Day three focused on ecology with a short hike to a hill and stream to collect insects to examine. Day four was coding, both learning about binary numbers and cryptography.

I heard little about the instructors, but that turns out to be a good thing because it meant there was a good deal of student-directed work. My son liked the instructors and had only positive things to say about them, but they really let the kids take the lead in learning. The instructors gave information and directions, but the kids took it from there. It wasn’t a boring lecture or experiments where kids mostly watched; the activities were fun and engaging in a way that didn’t feel like a lesson, based on my son’s explanation.

The Details
It’s a four-day camp, which has pros and cons. My son really liked the four-day aspect because he was trying something new and four days seemed more doable than five. It was as though he could do anything for four days, but five was a big commitment. I would have liked a full week from a childcare aspect, but we live about 20-30 minutes away from Foothill College, and I didn’t miss the commute on a day that I work from home.

The camp location is right off of 280, at the base of the Los Altos Hills. with signs directing you around the campus loop to the camp drop off location. The kids are dropped off and returned to the same spot at the end of the day. Parents don’t need to navigate the different buildings to find the right classroom. It was super convenient.

There were about 20 middle school kids in his class and he said everyone was nice and they were all engaged in the activities, which isn’t always the case at his school.

This was the first week of camp, with three sessions remaining: June 25, July 9, and July 16. There is still time to sign up for those sessions. The day runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Kids have an hour for lunch with a small grab-and-go cafe near the classrooms. My son brought a lunch two days, and bought lunch two days, running about $8 for a full lunch each day.

Everyone received a shirt and a hat. Shirts are common at camps, but the hat is really a smart touch. Some kids wore them every day and it’s something my son will use throughout the year. Plus, they are totally cute.

End of Session Presentation
The fourth day includes presentations from the students for any interested parents. At the start of the week, there was an email inviting parents to stop by if they could beginning at 2:30 p.m. My only complaint about the camp was that there wasn’t any direction upon arrival at 2:30 p.m. The email gave the classroom number, but because the kids were dropped off and picked up at the same spot, I didn’t know the classroom was downstairs, across the street, and in another complex. In the future, I hope they add a map on their drop off/pickup sign to help those of us who missed the presentations because we couldn’t find where to go. Only two parents made it to the presentation and my son wasn’t bothered that I wasn’t among them, so it was fine in the end.

We partnered with Science from Scientists to give an honest review in exchange for trying out camp for the week. Partnerships don’t matter to my son, who gave me his unbiased opinion each day, and it was all positive. 

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