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.
September 13, 2014
The Common Core movement has put a greater emphasis on analyzing, reasoning and developing arguments. It seems that content area teachers are scrambling to try to find effective and simple ways to tweak their lessons to include those types of skill building activities. Here is one strategy that I’ve found helpful.(photo at top courtesy of Mer Chau)
Help Students Dig Deeper into Articles
Two points come to mind about this:
- Students are not used to reading much of anything that has a technical nature to it (like science).
- Students are not used to analyzing complicated things, especially when reading. They have very little experience with the work and initial confusion that is involved in trying really understand something.
Life often forces you to read things that are technical and complicated (have you tried reading your medical insurance documents lately–that is the definition of technical and complicated!). There is real value in helping students develop more skill in this area.
Here is a strategy I have used that makes it easier for students to learn to analyze while at the same time making it fairly easy for me to assess.
It’s called ReQuest and I learned about it from a book by Jeff Whilhelm that we read for a book study at our school. He also came and did a workshop with us….it was top-notch. He has various reading strategies in the book, but this one seemed to best fit what I wanted and it was easy for me to use. It really centers around 3 levels of questions.
- What is being directly said (On the line).
- What is being implied (Between the lines).
- How does it affect the big picture (Beyond the lines).
I created a simply worksheet template.
Feel free to use it.
For me, having a simple strategy with the template is a solid start, but where could I get good articles? One answer I found: Popular Science. My school gets a subscription which I peruse each month and find ideas. Not only are their articles interesting and fairly short, they also have graphs and photos that grab the attention and can be used on their own for an analysis activity.
Here is what I would recommend from the September 2014 issue:
There is a lot of buzz lately about concussions and sports. These two articles hit that head on;)
Pushing our Limits is a series of short blurbs that discuss records of human feats of strength, speed, memory, brainpower, etc. It also gives tips about improving your body and mind (4 pages–the online version would be difficult to copy and paste however).
Google can now delete your past. But how much should be erased? This article brings up the issues surrounding online information about people– the so-called “right to be forgotten”. (one page)
There is a unique looking graph thick with visual data in the infographic How the World Wastes Food. A class could get a lot of analytical mileage out of that one (a two page spread).
I like the articles in Popular Science. They are about the right length and they grab my interest. When I copied and pasted a few of the articles into Microsoft Word, they showed a readability level of around 12th grade. I was expecting it to be a little lower than that, but I think they work. You can get the print version of Popular Science at a cheap price. Amazon has a year subscription for $12.
My goal this school year is to do one article analysis each quarter.
August 28, 2014
Teaching is a demanding and time consuming job. If you are like me you could use some help juggling things as you scramble from one lesson to the next. Here is a tool that helps me keep my lesson plans organized, saves me time and helps me improve my instruction each year.(photo at top courtesy of Helen Hall)
The best tool I have found for keeping my teaching life organized is OneNote. The software is not designed specifically for education and lesson plans, but it works really well for it.
It allows you to not only lay out your lesson plan for each class period each day, but also to include all of the resources that go with it: worksheets, photos, webpages, videos, etc.
Here is a screencast I made showing how I use it for my lesson plans.
Microsoft OneNote has a free version that saves everything in the cloud (on OneDrive). I use the paid version that we have at my school, but I have downloaded the free one at home and it seems almost the same (I have had some issues with syncing my school version with the cloud version at home—as in I can’t seem to sync them. But when I try saving new stuff in the home version it seems to work fine). It is also available in an app but I haven’t tried that yet.
I am not an expert user of OneNote- I’m definitely still learning some of the features. However, the basics are really easy to learn and you can start doing lesson plans immediately on it.
There are other programs out there for taking digital notes that will also work for lesson plans. Evernote is a very popular one. I use Evernote on my phone and really like some of its functions. For example, you can take a picture of a worksheet and it makes a pretty nice quick scan. Email it to yourself and a handwritten quiz or activity is now digital.
I also use it to store recipes that I want to remember (OK, so I only have about a half dozen that I actually cook….but it’s a convenient place to store them). I played around using Evernote with school stuff for a while but I felt like the layout wasn’t as natural for lesson plans so I stayed with OneNote.
Give it a try
If you are hesitant to make the change to digital lessons plans, then just give it a test drive. Use it for two weeks or for a unit or just play around with it for a while to see if it suits your planning and teaching style. I would really encourage everyone to use some sort of note taking software for lesson plans, it has really helped me organize and improve my teaching!
PS: If you have any other tips about OneNote, lessons plans, or staying organized in the classroom, feel free to share them in the comments. I would love to hear your ideas.
July 5, 2014
I love getting kids excited about science. It doesn’t matter if they are 17 yr olds in my AP Physics class or 8 yr olds in my science camp, the rewards are immediate. And it’s not just about entertainment either. Science can stimulate real learning when presented in the right way.
One of the things I love about running a science camp is that kids not only get to see cool demos but they get to do the work of scientists. They get to test things and try to find patterns in their results. They get to make decisions about what it all means or if it means anything. They also get to do the work of engineers. They build projects and then try to optimize them for a competition or just for fun. For example this year one of the big attractions was the solar death ray. It sounds menacing but it was really just a concave mirror aimed at paper-plate targets with various objects close-pinned to the plates to be melted.
Building things is Fun
I’ve got to be honest here and tell you that a big part of what they love is making stuff. They enjoy building the projects. I’ve had campers before tell me that their favorite part of science camp was getting to use the drill. It doesn’t hurt that almost all of our projects involve a competition of some sort either. And though the solar death rays didn’t take too much effort they loved it. Really LOVED it. Maybe I should say that they really loved melting things with them.
Becasue I have experienced that kids at all levels enjoy making things that involve science, I am pleased that the next generation science standards include engineering design (for more on that read here) as a part of their recommendations. Building things is an important piece in making science fun. And I’ve got to admit that’s one of things I love about it too.
There is something gratifying about melting a crayon or an army guy or even setting a cotton ball smoldering with only the power of the sun. But the kids also learn things. Some of it is things I’ve directly taught or planned but much of it isn’t. For example, a student in our first session of science camp this year had the idea of trying to pop a balloon with the death rays. It turned out to be one of the greatest targets of the day! We discovered that the color of the balloon affected how long it took to pop. I definitely hadn’t planned that one (although I wish I would have…it was a great idea!)
I taught a course at our school called Science Research and Design for two years. The course was designed not to teach kids a set curriculum, but to help them gain some experience with the process of science. It was a very interesting dynamic, because I gave virtually zero lectures. My main job was to facilitate their work: choosing a project, designing it, researching their background data (this was actually the toughest part for most of them), collecting data, analyzing the data and determining what it meant (for those interested we used this handbook as a resource). The class basically gave kids control over what they wanted to learn about and then gave them time to do it. You are probably thinking that if kids are let loose with a project to do that they’ll goof off a lot . Yes, the kids did waste some (read: more than I wanted) of their time. Yes, they sometimes went down the easy path or down dead end paths. Yes, my class was often messy and somewhat chaotic (and I had very little control over what they learned each day). But, at the end of the each semester those students had to stand up in front of a panel of science teachers and present their findings and defend their results. And even though the groups never quite got as far along with their projects as I hoped and never quite went as deep with their projects as they could have, I could see real learning. The science teachers in our department could see real learning. Not the pseudo-learning game that we often play in schools involving memorizing vocabulary and such. But it was authentic learning that the students figured out mostly on their own. And the cool part was that is wasn’t always the same for each kid. They learned different things. But they were in control of their learning and most of them really liked that.
Real Science is Messy
My class also learned how messy real science can be. But it’s in learning how to deal with the messiness and find patterns and relationships that makes it interesting. It’s in learning to analyze and communicate what you have found (and how certain you are of your findings) that gives those skills of science an important value in the everyday world. Who doesn’t want their kid to be able to analyze evidence and solve real life problems that are often messy? Who doesn’t want their kid to be able to articulate an argument based on evidence? We all do, don’t we?
In a small way that is what kids do at science camp. For example, this year we melted Hersey kisses by conduction, convection, and radiation (it involved candles, hair driers, and heat lamps). One of the parts I love about the experiment is that students have to decide in their individual groups when the chocolate is melted. What qualifies as being melted–when it starts to get shiny? When it is soft to a toothpick probing it? When it is a brown puddle? As students are forced to make these simple but important decisions not only do they develop ownership over their work, but they step into the messiness that is real science.
I don’t expect campers to walk away with a great understanding of the process of science in 4 days of science camp. But I do think they get a sense that science is a way of thinking and is often messy, but also enjoyable. And hopefully they see that that doing science is really just discovering the story the best fits the evidence that is available.
Kids can do real science
This was our 6th year of running a science camp for kids ages 8-12. We typically get a little over 100 kids through our doors each summer. It is not hard to see that kids love seeing cool science. But I have also observed that they want more than to just watch cool science, they want to DO cool science. And the best part is they can. They just need it to be framed in a way that makes sense to them.
I am very pleased to now be able to offer a science camp experience to many more kids! I have put together video from my camp in summer 2013, Force and Motion, and it is now available to be purchased for your kids. It includes demos , experiments for your kids to do at home, and of course, projects for them to build. For the next two weeks you can purchase just one day of the camp for $15 or the full 4 day camp experience for $50. Make it a whole family event if you want. The purchase comes with a list of supplies you will need to do the experiments and the projects. They are mostly household items, but you’ll probably need to pick up a few things. You can find the purchase options here.
If a camp experience isn’t in the budget this summer, then use the free monthly science episodes on this site as your science enrichment. Whatever your situation this summer, let’s get your kids Stoked About Science!!!
December 12, 2013
When I think of Christmas, I think of second chances. The longer I live, the more I firmly believe in and rely on second chances. I think once you become a parent you don’t have a choice but to believe in giving second chances..and 3rd chances and 4th chances;) This story isn’t really a Christmas story, but it has a Christmas ending to it and it’s all about second chances.
When I was a kid. We had a dog named Benji. I grew up in rural idaho and we typically had a foot or two of snow on the ground each winter. Benji was an outside dog and he had a nice dog run about 50 feet from our front door. None of us kids liked feeding the dog in the winter or to be truthful, in the summer either (we still have a lot of collective guilt over this, but more on that another time).
One winter evening during my early teenage years we had finished dinner and it was time for me to go to scouts. I was then informed that it was my turn to feed the dog. Probably being late already, I was not happy. In reality, the whole thing would only require a few minutes of work and a slight amount of discomfort. But, being angry that I was being reminded to do it and especially to do it right now, I stomped on the front door with the dog food in one hand and pitcher of water in the other.
A bad decision
I quickly gave the dog his food and water and then made a bad decision. Without any trace of fore-thought or common sense, I launched the Tupperware water pitcher toward the house in a glorious and dramatic show of defiance. Or so I thought…
I then watched with a mix of anger, disbelief and horror as the pitcher crashed into a bedroom window and shattered the outer pane.
I then slowly walked back into the house not knowing whether to show how sheepish I felt or to still be angry. My mother was upset (of course, as she should have been) and my sheepishness quickly evaporated. We argued a little and then I stomped out again to get my bike and ride to scouts.
A great decision
Its the next part of the story that sticks most with me. Before I could wheel away my Mom came out and talked to me in a calm voice about what had happened and calmed me down and basically forgave me. Now, I have three kids of my own and to be honest I don’t know how she calmed down so quickly or had the ability to tell me it was OK after just a few minutes. But she did. Though I don’t remember exactly what she said I will never forget what she did. She let me know it was OK. Things would work out. She loved me and always would. Her message wasn’t really about breaking a window in anger, it was about life. She was telling me that its OK to mess up and that I could get a second chance or really as many chances as it would take for me to become what she knew I could become. It was about me being accepted and loved for who I was, angry-window-breaking flaws and all. It was about me being given a second chance to be better next time.
I don’t really remember what my consequences were for the broken window. I was probably grounded and had to pay for the window to be replaced (or least I was threatened to have to pay for it). Isn’t it interesting that I remember what my mom did and not what my consequences were? I’m sure there are more than a few parenting lessons in that.
No this post isn’t really about science or about education, but it is about teaching. And whether you’re teaching in a classroom or in the family room, I believe that kids deserve second chances. Sure we need to teach the importance of being responsible and meeting deadlines and working to achieve something, but at the same time kids/students need some leeway to mess up. And they need to be able to mess up safely. The culture and systems of accountability we set up in our homes and classrooms will teach these adults-in-embryo a lot about life and choices. But hopefully we as teachers in these young people’s lives will teach them the most by how we respond when they do make bad decisions.
The Christmas Part
OK, now for the Christmas part. This time of year most of the world seems to pause momentarily at Christmas time as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. No matter what your religious beliefs are, history records that Jesus was a real person who repeatedly taught about second chances. From my reading of his life, He seemed to be constantly finding ways to let others know that there was hope–that there was a way to mess up and still have things turn out OK–that there was a way to get a second chance. My belief is that He lived and died to provide us all a with that reset button in our lives. And luckily we can push it over and over.
Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas in the Christian tradition, it seems it’s worth pausing for a moment to think about second chances. I think that giving other’s a second chance is as much a human thing as it’s a religious thing. We all mess up. We all sometimes respond in ways less than our best. At times, we all need others to to forgive us and we all need to forgive others.
It’s just so ironic that life has handed me a plate of justice and I end up with a kid or two that’s just like me. I can just hear my parents snickering about that one (and isn’t that what they hoped would happen to me someday!). So my advice to myself (and I guess to you), is that when my kid breaks a window (or something equally infuriating), take a deep breath. Pause for a moment. Collect yourself and remember that moment years ago when you were patiently and lovingly given another chance.
October 27, 2013
Now that school is back in full swing, I’ve decided write a post about how I view science. I love to use the word model when talking about science. To me a model is a way of seeing things. It’s the framework in your mind that makes sense of things. For example: think about the way you think of the calendar year. What do you visualize in your mind? Do you see calendar pages? Do you see seasons? Do you see birthdays and holidays embedded into each month? What you “see” is an example of a visual model.
It turns out that you have models in your head for everything. You have models for why its colder in the winter. You have models for why we get sick. You have models for how a car works. Our brains like to make sense of the world and so they create these models without us even consciously thinking about it. All of our models are based on our experiences. Sometimes our experiences are limited so our models may not be very good (meaning that they don’t fit reality all that well).
Science is simply a big long-term project of trying to come up with better and better models for nature. It’s a group project where science-types collect evidence that lets them refine their models over time. What we teach in the classroom are the best models science has to offer right now. The history of science has taught us that they change and that’s the way we make progress. It doesn’t mean that the previous models were bad or didn’t explain things correctly, it just means that we have a fuller understanding of what is happening. New information was incorporated into things resulting in a better model.
For example, people had known for hundreds of years before Isaac Newton’s time that there was gravity that pulled things downward. Newton, though, wondered if the force that made an apple fall to the ground could somehow be the same force that held the Moon in orbit around the Earth. He had no idea why the apple or the Moon would both be attracted to the Earth, so he made an assumption that maybe all things with mass attract all other things with mass. He then worked out the his calculations (he also helped invent a little thing called Calculus!) and came up with a mathematical model that described the strength of gravity. According to his model the gravitational force depends on the amount of mass of two objects and how far apart they are. The model worked very, very well. It correctly accounted for the moon’s path around the earth and also for all of the planet’s paths around the Sun.
Now fast forward to the start of the 1900s. A young scientist by the name of Albert Einstein wondered if there was another way to think of gravity. He speculated that maybe things with mass somehow change or warp the space around them. What to us looks like the moon being attracted to the Earth is really just the Moon following the natural curves of this warped space. He also cranked out some calculations of his own and we call his model the theory of general relativity. It totally changed the way we see the fabric of the universe. It correctly predicts everything that Newton’s model of universal gravitation does PLUS it explains how light can be bent by objects with mass. The extreme example being a black hole–an object that warps space so much that not even light can escape!
It isn’t that Newton’s model was bad. It wasn’t. We still teach it and use it all the time. It was incredibly accurate. It’s just that Einstein’s model is better. It better fits the test-able world around us. That is the nature of science. It is messy and sometimes filled with dark alleys and dead-end streets, but it is the only game that experiments and data and reasoning can play. It is not a collection of facts or laws of nature, but a process of constructing meaning out of the world around us. If students better understand that, then we as science educators are on the right path.