Researching STEM summer programs can be intense. How do you know that a science, technology, engineering or math camp will hit on the right things you need?
There are hundreds of programs, some at elite institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Naval Academy, others at local schools or recreation departments. Each focuses on different aspects of STEM, and activities can vary widely from robotics and chemistry to space science and virtual reality.
You don’t want to waste money or time on a program that is boring, stale or that adds little to your knowledge bank. And you want a program that suits your learning style, whether it’s lab work, group projects or exploring out in the field.
So where to start? We asked some experts.
Find your focus and learning style.
Consider your interests, then sharpen your focus and see what program suits your brain, says Hank Yochum, chair of the Department of Engineering and Physics at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, runs a weeklong team-based engineering course for girls. Once you find the right combination of subjects and teaching styles, you can focus on your passions while tackling societal and real-world problems, Yochum says.
"Research the different programs and get a feel for what each school is doing, what they specialize in and what their philosophy is," Yochum says. "Here, we weigh heavily on creativity and hands-on learning, but some students may be looking for something more technical and lecture-based, which would point them in a different direction."
2. Check out the faculty and mentors.
While Sweet Briar uses full-time faculty to teach summer students, the school also hires recent engineering graduates to help with student projects and to live in the dorms. Yochum, who is also a professor in the summer program, says the amount of support that teens are given at a camp setting can "make or break" their success.
"Having engineering faculty on hand while they are learning skills like brainstorming, design and building gives students a higher level of expertise – and students can float ideas by them and really get a feel for where they want to be headed in the future," Yochum says. "There is a huge change from being a senior in high school to actually being a recent graduate who is actually working for a company. It's empowering for the high school girls to see where they could be in a few years. .... Interacting with women who have utilized their education can have a huge effect on their future."
You want a program that not only has technical expertise but also support and mentoring for high school students, says George Delagrammatikas, associate professor of mechanical engineering and STEM and outreach program director at The Cooper Union in New York City.
Cooper Union offers a six-week summer program at the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. The program features hands-on engineering design and problem-solving.
"Faculty from departments like civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering give students the expertise and the foundation they need to confront global problems," Delagrammatikas says. "STEM fields can be highly technical in nature, and if you are spending the money on a summer camp, you want to see your child supported so that they can get on the right track for a career in technical innovation."
Besides technical topics, staff members give workshops on oral presentation skills, technical writing, career counseling and college admissions, says Delagrammatikas. They also help the students use Cooper Union’s library resources, computer facilities and laboratories as the students conduct their projects.
3. Look at financial aid.
Delagrammatikas urges parents to also pay attention to scholarship and financial aid opportunities. There are a number of ways families can reduce the price for summer programs, he says. Many programs will work with qualifying students, Delagrammatikas says, especially if they are "self-starters" and passionate about STEM fields.
"Professors are looking to give the opportunity to attend a STEM summer program to students who wouldn't normally have it,” he says.
5. Think creatively.
“Strong academic performance is a start, but I'm also looking for a student who shows passion and creativity outside the classroom in the STEM fields," says Delagrammatikas. “We want students that have staying power and drive and who will take on projects independently. If a student has a website that shows the projects they do at home or at school and I can visually see their creativity, I want them here."
4. Consider a program’s relevancy.
One of the most important aspects that a STEM program could incorporate is environmental science, says Renée Lopes-Pocknett, former director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Education Department in Mashpee, Mass., and developer of Native Youth in Science - Preserving Our Homelands summer STEM program. The program, which partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey Woods Hole (Mass.) Coastal and Marine Science Center, took the relevancy concept even further by incorporating tribal customs into the camp.
Lopes-Pocknett, who is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, says the monthlong camp was designed to help reconnect Mashpee Wampanoag youth with the ecology and geology of their traditional homelands through classroom and field presentations, with an emphasis on hands-on experience. It is an example, she says, of how programs can teach kids to help protect and preserve the planet's ecosystems.
"One concept that I think a lot of STEM programs miss is how math, decoding, modern building design, and computer skills and engineering can help combat global warming and global problems,” Lopes-Pocknett says. “Choosing a science or engineering camp that can specifically target sustainability and forward-thinking productivity is the way to go. … Investing in a camp that teaches teenagers how to have a positive effect on the entire environmental climate is so important and will help kids attain jobs and security in the future.”