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NIU online summer camps build creativity, community and career skills

April 21, 2021

Since 2020, many of NIU’s popular summer camps for elementary through high school students have been offered online. Using imagination, ingenuity and creative problem solving, camp directors from NIU STEAM and Summer in the Arts have developed online communities of creative and curious learners. Online camps are returning this summer with an even wider variety of topics as instructors apply the latest technology to bring old-fashioned camp fun online.

“One of the things I want people to understand about our camps is that, even though these are virtual, we’re all about hands-on exploration,” says Kristin Brynteson, director of NIU STEAM, which offers camps exploring science, technology, engineering, arts and math for students in grades 3 through 12. “We want kids to experience and do the science and engineering, and not just read or hear about it, so we’re really challenging our instructors to continue to do that in an online format. Campers will build connections with the instructors and other campers online, but then they’ll be able to go offline and do some of the activities, build their projects and explore on their own.”

According to Geof Bradfield – saxophonist, NIU professor of jazz studies and director of the Summer in the Arts high school jazz camp – the online format opens up some exciting new possibilities for the camp. “We will have more NIU jazz faculty involved this year, and involved to a greater extent than usual, with daily masterclasses, lessons and workshops. Evening activities like talent shows, jazz video night and the like offer students a chance to hang out in a less structured environment and chat with recent alumni. During the day, students are divided into smaller groups based on interests and instruments and will spend a lot of time in these cohorts with a faculty mentor.”

In fact, after a little more than a year of teaching, meeting and interacting online, this focus on the creative possibilities of the online format is a common refrain from camp staff.

Jeremy Benson, director of NIU STEAM summer camps, is looking forward to offering campers in the Backyard Rocket Science sessions a chance to use SLOOH – an online network of robotic telescopes that participants can control from their home computers to take amazing pictures of space. “The SLOOH telescopes are online and hands on – giving campers the chance to explore space with these real working telescopes,” he says. “In addition, the campers will be building and launching their own rockets in their backyards, and we’ll be sending out equipment to build a couple of different rockets and their own rocket launch pad.”

The NIU STEAM educators are also excited to offer several new camps for middle school students, including STEAM City and STEAM Quest, which allow campers to create their own city or character and engage in creative role-playing games.

“Especially during the pandemic, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons are something you can do virtually,” Benson says. “Just as we’ve been having meetings virtually, there are people out there playing role playing games online, and it’s become very popular as a way for people to interact and connect.”

“Role-playing games are also a great way to incorporate math, probability, statistics, creativity and improvisation, along with problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork,” Benson says. “Some corporations actually use role playing games for their team building and professional development because they build essential employability competencies – those individual and interpersonal skills employers have identified as necessary across all industries and career paths.”

In addition to building these core competencies, STEAM and Summer in the Arts campers will have a chance to immerse themselves in a wide variety of creative fields, chat with mentors and see what career paths spark their interest – from Drumset to Visual Arts to Theatre, Health Careers to Video Game Design to Digital Media.

Built into many of the Summer in the Arts camps is a chance to connect with NIU alumni to learn how to navigate a career in music or theatre, or how to create a visual arts portfolio for college applications.

“I’m looking forward to the new workshops we’re introducing this year,” says Bradfield, “Daily electives ranging from jazz history to music business, all taught by seasoned professionals who can take the students behind the scenes and offer the insights of decades of experience.”

For those interested in a more general approach to career exploration and self-development, NIU STEAM is offering a new camp, “Level Up Your Life Skills,” based on their popular Failure Bites podcast – in which a wide variety of successful people share the stories of their biggest failures and how they overcame them.

“Why are some people more resilient than others? Why do some people recover from failures or face challenges differently?” Brynteson asks. “We listen to these stories from a wide variety of people, and we talk about what they learned through their struggles, whether it was one big life-altering catastrophic change, or a series of small challenges they had to overcome to push towards a goal. Then the campers will interview someone they look up to, ask about their failure stories and create their own podcast.”

Brynteson, who has taught about failure in K-12 schools and educator professional development workshops, says this reframing of failure is often the biggest lesson students, parents and teachers take away from the workshops. “For so long we’ve always thought, if you failed, you failed, and it’s done. But actually, failure isn’t the end of the process – it’s just the beginning. Once you strip away the stigma, it’s fun and liberating to talk about failure and to know failure’s something everyone experiences.”

The chance to be authentic and vulnerable in a safe and welcoming environment can be particularly important for teens facing an uncertain world – something Theatre Camp Director and NIU Assistant Professor Kendra Holton knows well. “Our camp is known and loved for open-hearted, nonjudgmental connectivity of campers and staff,” she says. “Self-expression is encouraged so students feel safe to be themselves. We’re happy to tackle the puzzle of how we can help to remedy the changing landscape of social interaction while immersing the campers in confidence-boosting theatre activities that are creatively fulfilling and cathartic.”

In addition to NIU STEAM and Summer in the Arts camps, NIU also offers On Track Speech and Language Summer Camp for children ages 3-8 with mild to moderate speech or language delays. Athletic camp schedules and registration will also be coming soon. Visit to access each department’s camp website.