March 26, 2015
Why not start a Science Camp?
I thought about it for 3 or 4 years before I finally did it. My biggest fear was that I would invest all this time and effort into putting it together and then I wouldn’t get enough kids to show up to make it worth it. I just wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing that people would pay much for their kids to do.
I wanted to find a summer alternative to teaching math in summer school. Summer school was fine , but it was tough to help unmotivated students learn math for 5 hrs each day for 6 weeks! I was also motivated because my twins were 9 years old at the time and I thought they would really enjoy something like that. Plus, I thought it would be an enjoyable thing to do.
My dad finally convinced me that it was very low risk in terms of business ventures. So what if I wasted hours and hours and it didn’t work out? I had some time in the summer to do it and I really didn’t have to invest any money in it. If it failed I would only be out the time. That is about as safe as it gets for starting a new business.
So I did it. I tried it out.
It turns out I was wrong about science camp. That first year I only ran one session and got 43 kids to sign up–we were bursting at the seams! After my third or fourth summer doing it I was able to provide the same income as summer school for less than half the time (actual contact time at least). Now I certainly haven’t gotten rich off of it by any means, but I take home over $1000 for each session I run and I have to turn kids away because it fills up.
There is a lot of upfront work to running a science camp, but I think I’ve found a good model for how to run one successfully. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you–after all, if I can rescue just one teacher from the grind/torture of summer school then it will have been worth it ;)
Logistics: How to Start a Science Camp.
I run a 4 day science camp. Many people like to take off for long weekends on Fridays so I do Mon-Thur. Three hours seems to be a good length – enough time each day to get into some good science and long enough to give parents time that they don’t have to run right back and pick up their kids.
The camp is for kids from 8-12 years old. Kids turn 8 in second grade and that is a little young to fully understand some of the concepts but they almost always love it. Plus the younger kids are super-enthusiastic about science (or being at camp) and that is really fun to tap into as well. I have even let a few 7 year olds in (usually they have an older sibling or friend attending) . Twelve year-olds pick up on almost all the ideas quickly. In our area, most sixth graders are enrolled in a good science class so they have often seen some or many of the concepts already. I have even had a few 13 year olds enroll in the camp as well. They have generally had a younger sibling (or two) taking it or are still interested in taking part one more time. Overall, though, the 8-12 yr old range seems to be a good fit.
I run the camp at the high school where I teach. Since I run it as a school camp I don’t have to rent the facilities, but that also means that I have to submit a budget to the school and play by the money rules that school have. It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s worth it to be able to use the school for free. I also have to buy liability insurance for each camper. It’s less than $4 per camper to have a million dollar liability policy.
I hire 4 high school students to help me with the camp. I call them camp counselors. They each work with a group of 8-9 kids while they are doing their experiments and building their projects.
Projects, The Theme, and the Daily Schedule
I have a theme each year for the camp. Then each day’s activities are focused on a different aspect of that theme. For example, my first year’s theme was “Force and Motion”. The four areas of focus for each day were inertia, force, energy, and impulse.
The basic flow for each day is simple, but I think has been really important to the success of the camp. We start each day with exciting demos of the topic. Then we break into smaller groups and do an experiment. Finally, we build a project that they get to take home.
Let me give an example with my first year’s theme: “force and motion”. On the first day I start by welcoming them to science camp and talk about what we’ll be doing during the week. I then show them a few demos that illustrate the need to collect data to understand what is really going on – basically why we need science. Then I do about 20-30 minutes of demos involving inertia. Next, the students break into their groups with their counselor and do the mystery mass lab. They are given some masses (coins or washes with a known mass) and they tape them on to hacksaws blades and time how long it takes to swing back and forth 10 times. They then add more mass and do it again. Once they are done collecting their data, I give them a mystery mass object that they tape onto their hacksaw blade and time it over 10 swings and use their data to predict its mass. Then we put their mystery mass on the scale and see how close they were. After that we take a break and eat popsicles outside. Finally, we wind up the day by doing the project–balloon hovercrafts.
That is the basic breakdown of each day. Demos, Experiment, Project.
The projects are by far the favorite part of camp for most kids. They get to make some small, albeit very cool, project all on their own and take it home. Some kids have even said that getting to use a screwdriver or drill (with help of course) was their favorite part of the camp. However, I also think a really big key to success with the projects is to have a competition with them. The students compete within their groups and then the top two from each group compete in the grand championship. I have found that is the quickest way to do the competition and the most fun. Students get to compete with their smaller groups, but also get to cheer on their group champs in the finale with everyone.
I charge $95 for each camper. I also give sibling discount, so it costs $75 for families to add an additional sibling. That means I average around $85 for each camper.
Here is the basic breakdown per camper:
camp counselor $15
my stipend $40
* I have to pay the employer share of fed/ state taxes since I run the camp through our school district payroll.
The numbers are rounded a little, but give you a basic idea of where the money goes. I have found that I need to run more than one session to make it worth all the time it takes me to develop the camp each year.
Advertising and Registration
The projects and the theme is what takes me the longest time to figure out each year. I first come up with a general idea of what I want to do, then I find or create 4 projects that I like. Once I have the projects, then I can solidify the theme, select times and dates for the camp and start advertising.
I have found that advertising through our local elementary schools is the best option. The first year I created a flier with a registration form on the bottom and send it out to all the elementaries in our area. Parents could then mail in the registration with their check. The next year I created a page on my google site for the camp with all the camp information. Parents then filled out a google form on the site to register and sent their check to my school. Now in year 7, I’ve upgraded to some event software ( that allows me to manage things easier (it will send confirmation emails once they register and again when I receive their payments). However, they still pay by mailing in their checks (that is my school’s requirement).
A few other thoughts
What I like is to find an experiment where the campers can collect some real data and decide what they think it means. The counselors help them with this part. The younger kids can’t always analyze what is going on as well on their own, but they still love getting their hands dirty doing science. The trick is to find experiments that aren’t too complicated or difficult to control the variables. This can be a challenge to find something that is just right.
One experiment that I really like is the melting a chocolate kiss experiment in my heat and fluids theme. Students time how long it takes to melt a chocolate kiss using a hairdryer, a heat lamp and a candle under one end of a aluminum foil pad. Each group had to make a decision on what qualified as “melted”. They then had to try to make each experiment somewhat the same (control of variables). After that they just had to time how long each method took. Plus, they got to eat the results when they were done! The analysis was fairly straightforward and well within their abilities. It was surprising that some of the groups did not want to stop doing the experiment even though we were ready to move on (and I was encouraging them to wrap it up!). Their chocolate wasn’t melted enough yet for their liking–they were in the middle of DOING SCIENCE and they needed to get their results! That is the type of experiment that you want–something that is challenging and yet accessible.
Need more help to start a Science Camp?
Starting a science camp has been a rewarding experience and has supplied me with a summer income that was equivalent to teaching summer school for six weeks. However, it does take a lot of time in planning and organizing. I have now developed four different themes so I can offer a different camp each year and get many of the same campers back each summer. It’s fun to watch them come back as veteran campers and get better and better at science each year.
So, if you have thought about starting something similar, why not let my experience help you get a jump start. For less than the cost of one camper you could buy my Force and Motion Science Camp. It includes video of all the demos, experiments and projects already done for you. It also includes a supply and equipment list for each day. You could copy all of my stuff exactly and even use the video for some of the demos in your camp if you don’t have access to similar equipment. However, I would recommend doing as many of your own demos as you can. There is no way to duplicate the wow affect of a really good live demo!
My Force and Motion Science Camp can save you much of the upfront planning and developing time and let you jump straight into nailing down a location, picking your dates, figuring out your registration process and then advertising!
Also, if you would like some extra help getting started (or would just prefer some one-on-one help without the video), I am available as a consultant. Email me and we can discuss what you have in mind.
If the my science camp video or the consulting is not for you, feel free to email me with other quick questions about science camp. I am happy to help in whatever way I can to get your science camp off the ground.