STEM camp counselors: More than just a summer job

Becca Shields first started working at NIU STEM summer camps when she was an undergraduate elementary education major at NIU. “I started working at camp the summer before my student teaching, so I didn’t have any classroom teaching experience yet,” Shields says. “It really helped me to learn flexibility, organization, planning and classroom management – everything that you don’t really learn as a student, that you have to learn in the field.”

Shields, who graduated from NIU in 2016 with a degree in elementary education and a middle school math endorsement, now teaches sixth grade math in Crystal Lake. She continues to return to NIU STEM summer camps each year, now as an instructor leading STEM day camps for students in grades two through five on topics such as “Nature and Animals,” “Color and Sounds” and “STEM Superheroes.”

While teaching in a summer camp setting is an obvious fit for aspiring teachers, NIU students from a variety of majors gain valuable work experience through camp counseling and instructing. These jobs offer students the chance to work independently, think on their feet, solve problems and be part of a team – all skills and experiences employers say they would like new employees to have.

Campers and counselors in Earth Sciences Careers Camp got the chance to perform hands-on experiments.

“Employers tell us all the time that NIU graduates are successful in their companies because they are well rounded and ready to contribute,” says Rena Cotsones, associate vice president of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. “The NIU students who work as camp counselors are sharing their expertise, but they are also problem-solving, collaborating and communicating with diverse audiences. This experience helps prepare them for success in any kind of career they choose to pursue.”

Cory Packard, who is entering his senior year as an electrical engineering major at NIU, has just completed his third summer at NIU STEM summer camps, where he worked as a camp counselor and later as an instructor for a range of junior high and high school camps, on topics such as engineering, electricity and magnetism and making.

“I really enjoy the team building challenge we do at the very beginning,” he says. “It helps people open up and gets them engaged right away. We’ll do a paper tower contest where campers try to build the tallest paper tower and see if it supports a weight. Or spaghetti towers, building towers out of spaghetti and marshmallows.”

Packard says his experience working as a camp counselor and instructor is good preparation for his planned career in electrical engineering.

“It definitely makes your people skills better,” he says. “Talking in front of a classroom makes you better at conveying ideas, and that’s a good thing for engineers. It’s good for planning, for knowing when things are coming and how to manage your time, and it’s good experience for thinking on the fly. Sometimes, when things don’t go as planned, you can make up for it or change things around.”

First-time instructor Ryan Edwards, agrees. Edwards is majoring in elementary education with a focus on special education, and he appreciated the chance to apply what he’s been learning in both his education classes and his science classes at NIU.

“When choosing activities for the kids, I hand-picked some of the experiments from my NIU Chemistry 111 class to share with the campers here. I simplified them just a little, and the kids really enjoyed it. My favorite was doing a chemical reaction testing different acids and bases with our students. It was fun for them to realize what makes an acid and a base and to get a hands-on experience with the reaction.”

Edwards says his summer camp work is an important part of his NIU experience. “The STEM camps provide not only housing and food to the staff, but also opportunities and connections,” he says. “It’s the kind of job you can have over the course of many years while you’re at school here. There’s the chance to start out as a counselor and then work your way up to instructor.”

Camp counselor Hal Brynteson helped Quarantine camp students and teachers get in costume.

Hal Brynteson, a double major in computer science and time arts, chose to work as a camp counselor to develop leadership skills and because of the exciting activities and sense of camaraderie. Brynteson helped to lead five camp sessions and noticed the campers particularly enjoyed exploring space travel and our closest celestial neighbors in “From the Moon to Mars and Beyond!” and exploring the science and art behind the novel “Quarantine: The Loners” by Lex Thomas in STEM Read’s Quarantine summer camp.

“I’m excited to be a camp counselor because of my experience with STEM camps when I was a kid,” Brynteson says. “It made a big enough impact on me five years ago that I still note it as one of the best weeks of my life. Getting to know the other campers was one of my favorite parts! We also worked with LEGO® Mindstorms® robots, which, as someone with a lifelong interest in robotics, really stuck with me. I’m dedicated to making sure our campers leave with that same experience.”

Like Brynteson, NIU sociology major Cornell Cox first experienced NIU as a high-school camper, before going on to work as a counselor and later an instructor. Cox is now in his fourth year as a STEM camp staff member. Like many of the instructors who return year after year, Cox is motivated by the excitement students bring to learning in the camp setting.

For example, he says, “In July, health care careers camp was the place to be! The kids loved it and were really into it. We dissected cow hearts and lungs, and some of the girls were ready to jump in. When the instructor said he had to cut the fat off, they asked, ‘Can we do it?’ They asked questions on every tour. It was just an amazing week.”

When asked why she returns to work at NIU summer camps each year, Shields says, “What I love about the camp is that the kids are excited no matter how the lesson goes. There’s definitely been experiences where the lesson didn’t go exactly how we planned it or exactly how it turned out when we did it in training. But no matter what, they’re just excited to be here and to be learning, and I think that’s my favorite part about it.”

NIU students and alumni interested in learning more about volunteer and job opportunities with NIU STEAM or NIU STEM summer camps should visit the NIU STEAM website. Summer camp job applications are accepted starting in early spring and are considered on a rolling basis.

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