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NIU camps bring summer adventures online

May 13, 2020

A week at summer camp can be life-changing for a young person. Campers have the chance to build friendships, gain confidence, develop their academic or artistic skills, and explore career pathways. So when camp directors across the university learned that in-person summer camps had to be canceled this year, they were disappointed at first. Ingenuity and innovation soon came to the fore, however, as they began brainstorming how to bring summer camps online.

“Our NIU STEAM team, led by Camp Director Jeremy Benson, has taken several of our traditional camp topics and transformed them to work at home, turning physical science camp into Kitchen Counter Science and our amusement park camp into the Rube Goldberg Challenge,” says Amy Jo Clemens, director of NIU’s Center for P-20 Engagement. “Our video game design and esports camps lend themselves well to an online format, and we also have a couple of new ideas that we’ve never offered before like Become a Weather Forecaster and Make Your Art Move. It’ll be a summer to remember, for sure.”

“It’s been invigorating to start from scratch and create a camp that meets the very specific needs of this unprecedented moment we’re collectively experiencing,” says Assistant Professor

Camp directors are redesigning hands-on learning activities for online camps using supplies and technology most families have on hand.

Kendra Holton, who is leading the online theatre arts summer camps offered by NIU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

“My driving goal is to create a meaningful container where artistic young people who are living through a global pandemic can bring their joy, their grief and their truth,” she continues. “Our camp is known and loved for open-hearted, nonjudgmental connectivity of campers and staff. Self-expression is encouraged, so students feel safe to be themselves. This is a time when we all need a space to do that more than ever before.”

In fact, building interaction and community among the campers is a key goal for all the camp directors.

According to Benson, “We saw a lot of other at-home science kits and programs being offered that provided activities and materials, but they were mostly independent projects with step-by-step instructions. For our camps, we really wanted to make sure we kept that sense of being part of a group, and of sharing that experience with other campers. We worked to come up with ways that campers can still share ideas and work together through our online platform while completing more open-ended challenges and projects.”

To that end, the NIU STEAM camps offer a balance of online interaction and independent at-home projects for campers entering grades 3 through 12. With a range of topics – from Creative Writing to Video Game Design to Exploring Careers in Science – and a variety of one- and four-week formats, campers can choose a camp that fits their interests and the technology they have available at home.

Aline Click, director of eLearning and the Digital Convergence Lab, emphasizes the technology requirements for video game design, esports and coding camps. “Unlike other online summer camps,” notes Click, “the video game design camps require a certain level of computer to run the game development software.”

Campers who do have access to the necessary technology will have exciting opportunities to design virtual worlds using Minecraft, create their own video games using Unity or GameMaker, or practice competitive esports.

Click says, “It’s hard to pick just one favorite because we are excited about all of our camps, but this year we’re pleased to bring back our Unity video game design camp. We have a graduate student working with our team who will be teaching this camp along with our regular staff. Her senior project last year was developed in Unity, so she has a lot of experience.”

For campers looking for a more low-tech experience, a variety of camps are available that minimize the time online and maximize the time outdoors or engaged in hands-on activities.

“For many of our sessions, the emphasis will be on what the participants can create off-line, and then they will have the opportunity to come back together with our online camp community to share their creations,” says NIU STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert. “Kitchen Counter Science, Weather Forecasting and Make Your Art Move are just a few examples of sessions that will get kids off the computer and moving while learning and creating.”

In fact, the camp directors agree that in spite of certain challenges, the online format offers exciting new opportunities.

Holton says that most theatre activities translate well to an online environment.

“Theatre schools all over the world went virtual in March, and the majority of the curriculum stands up well online,” she says. “Acting classes, movement techniques, voice work, playwriting, warm-ups, meditation, musical theatre – all of the beloved camp basics will be on the schedule, as well as new items inspired by technological shifts occurring in the industry. Our major changes will occur in the rehearsal and performance process, where we’re presented with more challenges but also very exciting new possibilities.”

The online camps have lower costs and sometimes offer the chance for siblings or families to participate together. The format also allows for some longer, four-week camps in which campers can delve deeply into a subject and create more elaborate independent projects.

“With the costs of a residential program, it’s been difficult to expand beyond a week, but the flexibility of online learning is allowing us to facilitate more comprehensive experiences for high school participants,” Sievert says.

Camp directors are also embracing the opportunity to open up their camps to students around the world.

“Camps are huge recruiting opportunities,” Holton says, “and a fully virtual camp experience means the usual geographic limitations are obliterated – anyone, anywhere can join us for camp! While we would, of course, prefer to have the campers on campus, there’s no denying how much this format extends the reach of the university. We’re hoping for a diverse population of long-time campers and new faces from all over the country.”

Browse or search all NIU summer camps at Register or learn more about NIU STEAM camps at Register or learn more about junior high and high school theatre arts camps at the College of Visual and Performing Arts summer camp web page.