Out-of-School Time Programs: Advice and Lessons Learned

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dimensions magazine.

We asked science centers and museums to share their best pieces of advice and most important lessons learned regarding the following: 1) selecting topics and activities for out-of-school time programs, 2) partnering with afterschool providers and other community partners, 3) meeting the needs of underserved communities in out-of-school time programs, and 4) running successful camps or programs during school vacations.

On selecting topics and activities for out-of-school-time programs

GAME ON! Philadelphia is an out-of-school time enrichment program designed to challenge middle school youth to create science-themed games inspired by fossil, plant, and animal specimens. As part of the program, students examine the nature of gaming in its many forms, explore the collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and present their games to the public at the annual Philadelphia Science Festival. Educators from the academy and the Philadelphia Writing Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education collaborated to create the GAME ON! model. GAME ON! Philadelphia is part of the Intersections Project funded by the National Writing Project and ASTC through a grant from the (U.S.) National Science Foundation and is facilitated by teachers and afterschool providers in Philadelphia schools.

We wanted to do something fun and engaging that might be different from what the students experience in a typical school day. We chose gaming as our focus and used to our advantage the fact that youth are really the experts when it comes to playing games! Recognizing youth as knowers and experts creates excitement and buy-in right from the start. Game playing also teaches patience, collaboration, and problem-solving techniques. We combined gaming with science and literacy components to create a program that plays to the interests of the students. The program is grounded in making, speaking, writing, reading, and listening while addressing core science ideas and crosscutting concepts that relate to our plant and animal collections. We also made sure to build in plenty of time to play lots of games!

Mariah Romaninsky, senior manager of STEM programs, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia

SWEET (Science World Extravagant Evenings for Teens) event topics and activities are chosen by our Teen Advisory Group. The themes often overlap with our feature exhibition or other special events. Teens are the best people to choose what sorts of topics and activities will appeal to others in their age group. Peer-to-peer leadership and facilitation is also highly important at these events.

Samsara Marriott, youth program specialist, Science World British Columbia, Vancouver

To address the assumption that our camp activities are the same from year to year, we began using our current feature exhibition as the driving theme for our program development. Campers get to visit the feature gallery multiple times and participate in extension activities back in their camp rooms. This has also been a strategy we’ve embraced for family-focused, drop-in programs during winter and spring break weeks. We have also, on occasion, linked holiday activities to a new film opening in our OMNIMAX Theatre. This allows us to leverage and harmonize marketing campaigns and messaging. If the feature exhibition extends over multiple holidays or has a more targeted audience, we may feature strong guest presenters with family appeal and provide additional activities to complement that programming. For example, we have presented magicians and activities about the science of illusion and had stations where visitors could make balancing toys or practice magic tricks.

Rhoda Klein, curator, exhibit and program developer, Science World British Columbia, Vancouver

Discuss the needs of potential campers with all partners early on. Revisit these needs regularly to ensure that your topic selection is still relevant to your participants.

Armando X. Orduña, director of outreach programs, Children’s Museum of Houston

We’ve found that it isn’t so much the topic but the delivery that matters in out-of-school time programs. A successful program involves engagement and interaction. Pique a child’s curiosity or show something they’ve never seen before, and imagination takes care of the rest. No matter the topic, whether biology, physics, or robotics, we design programs that involve a mystery or question to be explored. Children rarely realize they are learning because it feels more like an adventure. The caveat: let kids problem solve at their own pace with their own methods. For example, squid dissections are simple and a big hit. We stress safety and teach students how to use the dissection tools, but let them poke around and cut the squid in the way they are comfortable. There is no wrong way or test or time limit—just their own curiosity. Before long the questions are flowing: “What is that silvery thing?” or “What happens if I cut that?” Our responses are usually “What do you think it is?”, “Does it remind you of anything you’ve ever seen before?”, or “Let’s cut it and find out.” Students remember those interactions and come back for more.

Jack Carr, director of education and engagement, Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, Camden, New Jersey

In our experience, the most meaningful and successful topics are those that highlight and complement our museum’s exhibits. Though we have dinosaurs on display, a simple “dinosaur” topic is not enough to excite visitors. Instead, we find a topic of study or an interesting question that makes the study of dinosaurs real for our kids. We’ll spend a day looking at evidence that allows second graders to determine the life history of a Hadrosaur, or we’ll spend a week with fourth and fifth graders studying biomechanics to help kids understand the links between dinosaurs and birds. All of the topics represent a process in scientific exploration and let our visitors know that they’ll be doing science with us whenever they come to our programs. Our building does a marvelous job of teaching these visitors what we know, yet they are truly hungry to understand how we got there.

Daniel Zeiger, senior manager, Discovery Room and Adventures in Science, and Sarah Maldonado, children and family programs coordinator, American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Three strategies we like to use are connecting with large-scale national or international programs, finding connections to current events, and connecting to seasonal activities. For example, during the last few years we participated in the international Hour of Code initiative—on a Saturday in December, we host activities for kids and families visiting the museum to try programming Arduinos and Lego robots. Examples of how we connect with current events include making creative problem-solving challenges based on events such as the Olympics, NASA’s push to go to Mars and back to the moon, recent floods and forest fires, and more. We connect to seasons by having activities based on plants or gardening in the spring, focusing on leaves or harvest in the fall, and studying sunlight, solar power, or thunderstorms in the summer. When the opportunities allow, we like to find people or organizations from the community that can present or share activities with our visitors.

Justin Spencer, youth development program manager, the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

The biggest piece of advice is to make the activities as open-ended as possible, so that your participants can tap into their own interests and engage in the activity in a way that feels meaningful and relevant to them. This will result in a more authentic experience for them and will have a greater impact on what they learn and how they invested they are in what they are doing. Leave lots of time for open-ended exploration that allows youth to take whatever they have learned and remix it to make it their own. Listen to what your youth are talking about as they arrive each day—be prepared to pick up on a topic that’s on their minds and find a creative way to incorporate it into what’s happening that day.

Gail Breslow, director, the Clubhouse Network at the Museum of Science, Boston

There is a fine balance between fun and work, and it is a line that needs to be examined and thought out thoroughly for out-of-school-time programs. Brucemobile educators deliver chemistry and physics–based afterschool programs at local middle schools in partnership with ROSCCO, a community organization that (among other things) provides afterschool care for working families in the public schools of Stamford, Connecticut. With the ROSCCO Afterschool programs, we strove to choose topics that students might be working on in their own classes (as per the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and Connecticut State Department of Education), as well as the guidelines provided by the Connecticut Afterschool Alliance for effective out-of-school-time programs. We wanted to make sure that the activities and programs that we offered provided students with a great deal of hands-on interaction, as well as time for guided reflection through journaling and sketching. The last thing we were interested in was creating an extension of the school day, so it was important to introduce students to new experiences and models of interaction. Another consideration was that we are not the only organization offering programs through the ROSCCO afterschool program. We asked for, and were provided with, a list of other programs and worked to ensure that our offerings were distinct from those of the other groups.

Corinne Flax, manager of school and community partnerships, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut

Our programs coordinators plan and write engaging educational content for camps. Camp facilitators then deliver the material and give feedback from conversations they have directly with students. Based on that, we are able to constantly evaluate our programs while also focusing on developing new content.

Micaela Balzer, director of innovation and learning, Impression 5 Science Center, Lansing, Michigan

The MiX is a space “for teens, by teens,” so we are very lucky to have extensive feedback and ideas from our members about our workshop themes and project ideas. Our job, then, becomes figuring out how best to facilitate those workshops and projects. This includes finding the necessary equipment and supplies, but also making sure that we think critically about how to scaffold the projects and activities so that the efficacy of our programming remains intact. Even though we think of teens as “digital natives”, throwing a lot of expensive equipment and technology at teens doesn’t mean they will be able to immediately apply it to the problem or project at hand. This is where the gentle prodding and guidance of mentors is necessary to help teens use the resources efficiently and effectively. Additionally, this helps teens make real world connections between the projects we work on in the MiX and their potential use in the “real world.” We want our teens to ask critical questions like, “Why are we making this?”, “How will this thing/project help our society?”, and “How can we make it better so that it can benefit more people?”

Matthew Leif Morgan Baker, outreach education coordinator and MiX master, Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond

On partnering with afterschool providers and other community partners

We have partnered with Vermont Afterschool, Inc. One of the best parts for the Montshire has been finding an enthusiastic new audience for our programs for students (outreach especially) and professional development workshops. Vermont Afterschool has been focusing a lot of energy on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and it makes sense for both of us to share our expertise.

Rachel Donegan, science educator and program manager, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont

We believe positive impacts on youth learning are greatest when educators and researchers collaborate to design and study programs together. This way students not only benefit from immediate learning opportunities that are informed by educational research, but educational research resulting from the partnerships is more relevant and timely for others who are designing programs in the field. In the California Tinkering Afterschool Network, afterschool leaders and educators from Techbridge joined forces with researchers from the Exploratorium to examine learning, teaching, and professional development in afterschool making programs for students underrepresented in STEM and computing. To challenge traditional educational research models—in which researchers come in with their own questions and receive little input from educators or program leaders—we paid special attention to building trust, welcoming each other’s perspectives and ways of talking about teaching and learning (see our resource about Value Mapping), and developing norms for collecting and analyzing data together. Based on these experiences, we created a guide for building equitable partnerships that outlines suggestions for developing common definitions, identifying and negotiating partnership activities, discussing communication routines, etc. Check out our partnership resources and let us know what you think!

Linda Kekelis, founder and former CEO, Techbridge, and Jean Ryoo, educational researcher, the Exploratorium, San Francisco, and director, the California Tinkering Afterschool Network

When working with afterschool providers, be aware that each site is unique with varied resources and capabilities. Be strategic in selecting your partners because you will need to be flexible to meet their needs while leveraging your strengths for maximum impact. Orlando Science Center has partnered with multiple afterschool providers, including our local school districts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, Head Start, and the Early Learning Coalitions. The most successful partnerships resulted from time to plan so there are few surprises when the programs are implemented. It’s important to develop the program at the high level, but also be connected with contacts at the locations themselves. They will be essential for helping to implement the program successfully. One of our most successful afterschool collaborations was with the Orlando Chamber of Commerce on a program called Young Entrepreneurs Academy. Working with multiple business partners, we provided weekly sessions for 15 middle and high school students that helped them to develop a business from idea to implementation. Orlando Science Center is the first science center in the country to partner on this national program, which allowed us to show the important linkages between STEM skills and entrepreneurialism.

Heather Norton, vice president of education, Orlando Science Center, Florida

Partnerships are key for the MiX. We partner with Virginia Commonwealth University and other local universities to find and hire our “near peer” mentors for the MiX. Because our space is focused on teens, these “near peer” college mentors are an essential resource for building rapport with our members. They serve as exemplars of possible college/career paths.

We also partner with afterschool providers, local schools, and youth development programs (Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, Higher Achievement, etc.) to recruit and reach out to teens. The MiX is the first specifically teen-based program (other than volunteering) that the Science Museum of Virginia has had in over a decade. Because of this, recruiting teens for the program during its early days was a major focus. These partnerships were, and still are, essential in helping to build our membership base. Active members, in turn, act as force multipliers in recruiting more of their peers.

Matthew Leif Morgan Baker, outreach education coordinator and MiX master, Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond

Brucemobile educators afterschool programs at local middle schools in partnership with ROSCCO, a community organization that provides afterschool care. The afterschool students require access to water, non-reactive tables, open space to throw paper airplanes, elevator or ramp access, and much more. Afterschool programs that are not run by the schools have managers who may not be completely familiar with the spaces they will be using and may not be able to arrive much earlier than educators to prepare spaces. To ensure that Brucemobile educators have the right accommodations to deliver our programming, we need to go on pre-visits and always arrive early enough to deal with any unexpected obstacles. Communication both about program content and physical requirements is a key aspect of pulling off any partnership. In addition to creating a working space able to accommodate all of our program needs, it also means that we give ROSCCO staff buy-in to our programs and information about content.

Corinne Flax, manager of school and community partnerships, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut

I recommend establishing key people from all partner organizations to streamline communication. A simple logistics discussion can be greatly muddied by involving more voices than necessary.

Armando X. Orduña, director of outreach programs, Children’s Museum of Houston

Working with sites that are well established, where the structures and rules are already in place, will make implementing your program much smoother. Established partners bring important experiences and ideas. Whether you will be running the program yourself or training out-of-school time providers, it’s also important to meet with the staff and get feedback well in advance of your start date. We’ve found that spending this time getting to know our partners before starting the programming has been invaluable in creating a sense of shared goals and commitment. We also stay in touch and meet with the staff during the program and after itis finished to share ideas and lessons learned.

Mariah Romaninsky, senior manager of STEM programs, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia

GrowingGreat’s best “lessons learned” are in working with community partners in underserved communities. Our mission is to empower every child to grow up healthy through science-based garden and nutrition education. Many Los Angeles children do not have access to green space or fresh produce, and have no idea where their food comes from. We need to come to them and customize our hands-on science program to each location. GrowingGreat’s overworked community partners care for families with challenges like child abuse, extreme poverty, and limited English proficiency. We suggest taking the position that you are there to help, not to add one more thing to their to do list. We fit into their schedule and curriculum and we don’t get upset if they make unexpected changes or don’t reply to our emails right away. We slowly build trust with parents and educators, always avoiding the role of being the “expert.” Every time we visit, we ask for their feedback and incorporate it next time we come. And finally, we wouldn’t be GrowingGreat if we didn’t say this: We always bring healthy snacks! Who doesn’t love to be able to eat their activity when they’re done?

Jennifer Jovanovic, executive director, GrowingGreat, Manhattan Beach, California

Technopolis, the Flemish Science Center, has coordinated the STEM Academy network since early 2014. The network brings together over 80 organizations that provide afterschool STEM-activities to children and youth up to 18 years old. Ranging from high schools to universities and from established professional organizations to independent start-ups, these organizations’ activities are as diverse as their backgrounds. Some focus on nature (e.g., habitat studies) or astronomy (e.g., designing water rockets), others are more technical or programming oriented, or even combine both fields (e.g., make a wooden sword and program it to make a sound when you swing it). It is this diversity that proves to be the network’s greatest strength. Regular network meetings provide a platform to exchange ideas, share best practices, and foster new collaborations. There is strength in numbers, too: as a network it is possible to apply for funding that would be unavailable for smaller and individual organizations. Meanwhile, a common website centralizes all activities in the same place and, in combination with a specially designed logo, ensures uniform communication toward participants.

Patricia Verheyden, experience director, Technopolis, the Flemish Science Centre, Mechelen, Belgium

Working in collaboration with community partners can be an excellent way to tap into the expertise of others and reach new audiences—when done right. Partnering with outside organizations on a collaborative summer camp, I have learned that it is best to sit down with your partners and together think through all of the whys and hows, goals and expectations ahead of time to create a strong and effective partnership.

At the Science Museum of Minnesota, we have been partnering with a theater organization and an arts organization for a science–theater–art camp every summer for 36 years. This year, when we decided to do a 21st-century reboot of this camp with a new name and a new arts partner, we also decided to sit down and create a contract for the first time. We discussed the purpose and goals of this collaboration, we created clear expectations for all partners, and we rethought out the distribution of revenue. This has created a stronger partnership where all parties know what the vision of the collaboration is and what we are each bringing to the table. This important step has led to a more functional and dynamic partnership overall.

Zeta Kilbride, summer camps program developer, Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul

Science World’s Super Science Club is an afterschool program that provides science and technology activities to students in inner-city communities, in grades 1–7. Science World’s goal is to inspire children facing multiple risk factors to develop a long-term interest in science and technology. The most challenging aspect of Science World’s Super Science Club is being flexible with the community needs, schedules, and budget.

To create and maintain a successful program, you need clear communication from all parties involved, including the community partner, the organization, and the facilitators. When establishing a working relationship with a community partner or afterschool provider, look for those community champions who show strong leadership, since they will make a world of difference when running your programs. These leaders could be parents, volunteers, or support workers. Make sure to set clear expectations and designate roles and responsibilities from the start so that there is no miscommunication. It is also good to discuss what the community needs are and determine what other organizations are working in your area, so that you are able to distribute resources and not just have everyone focus on one location or area.

Kristin Lee, program specialist, curator, Science World British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Community organizations that operate afterschool programs have a tough job. As typically the only science content provider for our partners, the Center for Aquatic Sciences has a fairly straightforward goal of focusing on the students each day, which is the fun part of afterschool programs. The administrators of afterschool programs are often understaffed and underresourced and must juggle the diverse needs of the students, parents, staff, content providers, the school district, and funders, just to name a few. These stakeholders have important, but often differing priorities. We work with both a university, servicing five local schools, and a Latino community organization, linked to multiple neighborhood schools. Patience and flexibility will be critical to successfully managing the programming and collaborative relationship. Scheduling changes happen often and sometimes with little notice. At the center, we have found if we proactively and routinely communicate with our community partners to confirm school and program schedules and keep updated with partner staffing changes, and also remember that the children are what matter most, we can keep focused and relieve some of the burden on our community partners.

Jack Carr, director of education and engagement, Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, Camden, New Jersey

The first lesson we’ve learned is the importance of having a common sense of purpose and shared values. Without that, any kind of partnership is going to fizzle pretty quickly. The second thing is to have a clear definition of each partner’s roles and responsibilities and beyond that, a shared understanding of the core competencies of each member of the partnership. Without the latter there won’t be mutual respect for what each partner brings to the collaboration. The third and most important lesson learned from our longtime partnerships is the importance of fostering strong personal relationships. There is nothing that a strong relationship can’t fix when each party has the other party’s success at heart and both parties are working toward a shared sense of purpose.

Gail Breslow, director, the Clubhouse Network at the Museum of Science, Boston

On meeting the needs of underserved communities in out-of-school time programs

We are very lucky that at the Bruce Museum, we have several different grant and scholarship opportunities that have allowed us to work with underserved communities at no cost to the participants. We do not distinguish between programming for underserved communities and general programming. This means that we work with each group as a unique entity, allowing them to explain the parameters and focus of the programming. Our teaching methods are based on current pedagogy and this allows us to respond to each group’s needs and wants with flexibility. ROSCCO, our community partner, has a specific focus on the children of working parents who have limited access to other forms of childcare. By partnering with ROSCCO, the Bruce Museum has greatly expanded its reach into local immigrant populations as well as single parent families and lower income families.

Corinne Flax, manager of school and community partnerships, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut

Invite parents and family members to get involved. That means not just inviting them to a showcase at the end of the program, but inviting them to participate in meaningful ways. Perhaps you hold a potluck meal together. Or schedule time for parents to do an activity shoulder-to-shoulder with their kids, rather than just passively observing. Plan transportation and childcare for younger siblings. Be sure your materials are available in the language(s) spoken in your communities. Hold high standards and expectations of everyone. Among clubhouse alumni, 97% said the clubhouse had been the single most important source of support for setting high goals and expectations for themselves.

Gail Breslow, director, the Clubhouse Network at the Museum of Science, Boston

SWEET (Science World Extravagant Evenings for Teens) events are free for all 13–18 year olds. This removes any financial barriers that may inhibit teens from attending these events. We have actively reached out to teen/youth centers throughout our community to make sure they know about our free evenings. There are organizations out there that are on tight budgets and are looking for quality experiences for teens. We found that these organizations are quite grateful and excited to hear about these events.

Samsara Marriott, youth program specialist, Science World British Columbia, Vancouver

For all of our paid out-of-school time programs, we have scholarships available, and they’ve been a big help in getting kids in the door who otherwise might not have access to such programs. To help pay for even more scholarships, we specifically look for grants and other offerings to help provide that money. As a nonprofit this is an important part of us keeping our reach broad enough to include the entire Twin Cities community. ASTC’s Creativity Garden is one example of a program that helps us do just that.

When it comes to getting girls enrolled in our programs, we find that we usually have little problem with our summer camps. We are even offering two weeks of girls-only camps this year since our one girls-only week was consistently the first to fill up in previous years. Our school-year programs are a different matter, but one technique that’s helped in the past is having women mentors serve as role models for the students. When we’ve had only one girl in a multisession program, we’ve made special offers for her to bring a friend for the rest of the sessions.

Justin Spencer, youth development program manager, the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

Oftentimes due to the compounded effects of summer learning loss, children living in poverty may fall behind one or more grade levels. Instructional delivery and program experience may require modified supports for learners. This is not the same as “dumbing down” your program’s curriculum, however. Modified supports might be exemplified through extended time for problem-solving activities or a group word wall where students can collectively add unfamiliar vocabulary, and through modeled practice, collectively pull meaning out of that vocabulary.

Armando X. Orduña, director of outreach programs, Children’s Museum of Houston

We purposefully designed Techbridge to meet the needs of underserved communities by talking with girls and designing Techbridge around their interests. Techbridge regularly gathers input from girls, parents, and teachers to understand program impact. Here are a few of the important lessons we learned to better support underserved communities:

  1. While girls loved STEM projects, they regarded them as hobbies instead of career options. Role models can help connect the dots between activities and careers; this is especially important for girls who do not know STEM professionals.
  2. Techbridge girls regard their parents as role models yet many parents feel ill equipped to help. We support parents with resources and research. Techbridge works with families to learn how best to empower and engage them in supporting their daughters in STEM.
  3. While Techbridge was started by Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, its afterschool programs are hosted at schools to make them accessible and are staffed by Techbridge coordinators and classroom teachers. Teachers are important in recruiting a wide range of girls, especially those who could most benefit but may not initially believe they’re good enough at technology or smart enough in science. Teachers are also powerful program advocates who can communicate well with families.

Linda Kekelis, founder and former CEO, Techbridge, and Jean Ryoo, educational researcher, the Exploratorium, San Francisco, and director, the California Tinkering Afterschool Network

Outreach is incredibly important when trying to meet the needs of underserved communities. We try to have a presence at as many community events, career fairs, and special school programs as possible. One of the greatest challenges (at least in Richmond) for our underserved communities is transportation. We can at least alleviate this problem a bit by going to their communities.

Our outreach efforts often include a physical presence, but we also provide live broadcasts from the MiX to our middle school out-of-school time programming partners (Boys and Girls Clubs, Higher Achievement afterschool programs, and others) to begin building our next cohort of teen members. This way they are aware and excited about of the MiX before they are teens and hopefully jump at the chance to join the MiX as soon as they turn 13. This preemptive marketing of the space is essential to making sure underserved communities are aware of the MiX and feel welcomed in the space. The MiX is an apt name, not only because of the “mix” of subject matter but also because of the diversity that we promote in our space.

Matthew Leif Morgan Baker, outreach education coordinator and MiX master, Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond

Our program was created specifically for middle school youth in city schools that are underserved. The educational system in our city was under severe financial stress when we were developing GAME ON! Philadelphia. We wanted to construct a program that could be used in any school or community center without too much cost to the sites. Though digital game playing is something youth are familiar with, the absence of technology in many sites made it necessary for us to create a program that can be run without access to computers or the Internet. We provided the information and materials necessary to invent and play tabletop and active games. A two-year grant brought us together to plan and create as a team, provide materials for active learning and making, and provide funding for buses and field trips that included families. We sought to create a nimble program that would fit different sites and that encouraged youth to be creators. Having it underwritten in the future would be instrumental in its continued success.

Mariah Romaninsky, senior manager of STEM programs, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia

On running successful camps or during school vacations

The MiX operates on the weekends throughout the school year. Each weekend has a different focus, including video broadcasting, workshops, creative challenges and even Open Houses so the teens can show off their work. During school vacations (spring and fall break, summer vacation, etc.), we adjust our programming to incorporate more in-depth and long-term projects. We also lengthen our schedule from Friday–Sunday to Monday–Friday to allow more time to explore and work on these projects. Often, the toughest challenge is to make sure MiX Members are aware of the schedule changes. With a few redundant emails and Facebook posts (and verbal reminders when the teens are in the space) this can usually be accomplished fairly easily. Flexibility and communication within your institution and with staff is obviously a necessary factor if you plan on readjusting your schedule periodically. This can be tricky if you employ current college students as mentors (as we do) and the local college and high school breaks don’t line up. We’ve found that with (excessive) planning, though, this problem can usually be alleviated.

Matthew Leif Morgan Baker, outreach education coordinator and MiX master, Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond

Establish a focus for your camp. You can certainly offer variety to your participants but campers and parents should have some context for how children will spend their time in your program.

Armando X. Orduña, director of outreach programs, Children’s Museum of Houston

Student-driven projects are a great approach for successful camps. For students to design and build their own projects they need three things: skills, support, and an opportunity to share. Teach students to use tools and work with materials in safe and effective ways. This gives them confidence to take an idea from their imagination and bring it into reality. Creating something from scratch can be difficult so students need support and mentoring. They might have a great idea but are unsure how to do it. Help them develop problem-solving skills and new techniques. Building and designing is hard work. This is worth sharing and celebrating. Once students complete their projects, give them an opportunity to share it with friends and family. At the end of all of our programs, we host a Big Show for students to show off what they have created. This builds a creative community where students want to help and support each other. Excited and successful students are your program’s best advocates.

Justin Spencer, youth development program manager, the Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

It all starts with building relationships, between the youth and the staff, and between the youth and each other. Build in lots of time for getting to know each other rather than rushing into the “topics” for the week. Rinse and repeat each day to set the tone for the day and reinforce the relationships that are forming. Schedule lots of “down” time. Snacks are good! So is time to run around and let off steam. For other ideas, check out the clubhouse facilitation tips in Start Making! A Guide to Engaging Young People in Maker Activities, available free online.

Gail Breslow, director, the Clubhouse Network at the Museum of Science, Boston

In a very competitive environment, Orlando Science Center has established itself a leader with decades of experience engaging young minds during school vacations. The science center’s camp is accredited through the American Camp Association, which sets our program apart from many of our local competitors, but also demonstrates that we have a commitment to education, quality, and safety. A strong creative curriculum that provides vivid hands-on experiences layered with STEM learning will set you apart and help keep young minds focused and active. Staffing up is essential because you need educators, counselors, and volunteers to support the large numbers of students, especially during summer break when you could have 100 students or more each week. Organization and strong communication with parents is very important. About two weeks prior to summer camp kicking off, we hold two open houses to orient parents and take care of paperwork in advance as well as take care of last minute registrations. Make your program convenient for working parents by providing online registration and offering early drop-off and late pick-up. Create new offerings each year to keep your content fresh and relevant or campers will tire of your program.

Heather Norton, vice president of education, Orlando Science Center, Florida

Mishkat Interactive Center is building on its successful summer program to engage 120 teenagers this August. Mishkat was set up to inspire a new generation of energy innovators. Initially open for school groups, the team has built in confidence and capacity to deliver festivals for family audiences and special programs for gifted and talented students. The summer programs—called the Kingdom of Sustainable Energy—puts teens center stage, giving them the tools, inspiration, and skills to apply inquiry and research skills in real world contexts. The summer program is a rich mix of workshops, shows, challenges, and trips to places such as solar farms.

There are many factors that contribute to making the Kingdom of Sustainability a success. This includes the enthusiasm of our team, motivated by doing something that is new and exciting not only for our center, but also for Riyadh and the region; the variety of activities that keeps audiences engaged and responds to different learning styles and abilities; and the partnership we have developed with Mawhiba (King Abdulaziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity), who spearhead gifted and talented programs across Saudi Arabia.

Banan AlBanna, content developer, and Abdullah Bin Zaima, content development specialist, Mishkat Interactive Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As those in the camp world can attest, success depends on both planning and implementation. My reference point is Science North’s summer operations in Northern Ontario, Canada. We have to deal with a vast geographical area, and therefore operate programs over a 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) area. We will operate in 32 different locations this summer, and variables like economic health and population size are important. The majority of those communities have populations under 10,000 people, so we devised a model that created “anchor” communities that in effect support smaller peripheral communities around them. We hire from those anchor communities to help control our traveling costs, and run full summer options on those sites. Those savings help pay for the costs of traveling to smaller towns for much shorter timeframes. Those are important considerations, but great staff make or break your reputation! And great staff don’t get to work if there aren’t registrations, so a strong and diverse marketing plan is required. To summarize—it doesn’t matter if your program is one week during March break, or runs for 10 weeks during the summer school hiatus. You need to know your communities and your audience, and make sure they get the chance to know you!

Cathy Stadder Wise, senior scientist, informal learning programs, Science North, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

We had a lukewarm response for school vacation camps for years to the point where we considered not doing them at all. We had tried a number of different models, but once we did full-day camps (9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) and let parents pick the days their child participates with a small discount for multiple days, we filled those spaces quickly. Each day stands alone programmatically, and each of our core staff in the department takes one or two days. Some of our topics have been astronomy, tinkering, kitchen chemistry, and insects. We try to pick a wide range of topics so any kid can find something they are excited about. And the full day means working parents are supported, too.

Rachel Donegan, science educator and program manager, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont

We typically run nine different camps per week throughout the eight weeks of summer. Our camps have a maximum of 24 campers per week. We have recently instituted a few tricks that have helped us deal with both the large number of campers and the overall well-being of our camp staff.

  • Wristbands: Each camper that is registered for camp wears a colored wristband for the durat
  • Junior instructors: Our junior instructors are paid staff who are under the direction of the camp instructors. They are an “extra set of hands” for the instructor and can also conduct programming and be responsible for the group. They are scheduled for six hours per day, as opposed to the full eight-hour day of the camp instructor.
  • Alternating lunches: We group our campers to have lunch by age group and stagger the lunch hours so that all our campers are not eating/playing outside at the same time.

Andrea Brickwood, manager of school programs, TELUS World of Science Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Summer camp season is a great opportunity for us to innovate and “beta test” new ideas and programs for outreach, in-house classes and events, and scout programs. We’re able to tweak things as we go and get honest feedback from the kids because we’ve built a relationship with them. That being said, we can also do things that we could never do anywhere else; like having the campers design and build a raft for our city’s Anything that Floats River Race.

Meghan Richards, education specialist, Discovery Center Museum, Rockford, Illinois

Our summer camps have been running for over a decade. We took some of our full-time science facilitators who led field trip workshops during the school season and had them lead camps in the summer months. It is rewarding to see those who had attended camp every summer throughout their childhood now volunteer as camp assistants! We set our fees to reflect the quality of our offerings and are able to generate revenue as well as meet the value expectations of parents. We have been explicit in defining our camp’s educational purpose, rather than merely meeting a childcare need. We have also been fortunate to have donors willing to provide bursaries to offset registration costs for families in need. Despite continued requests for spring and winter break camps, we find that our human and facility resources during those weeks better serve our community by accommodating the steady volume of families and visiting day camp groups.

Rhoda Klein, curator, exhibit and program developer, Science World British Columbia

The first step to running successful camps during school vacations is planning and preparation. It all begins with hiring the right staff. We look for high-energy, resilient staff members who enjoy teaching children and appreciate the value of play.

Next we ensure that all new staff receives quality training. We cover everything from routine policies to high-alert situations and allow time and space for team members to understand their role and to engage in questions during training. We train staff to effectively address and redirect children’s behavior, which later allows for a flexible learning environment that accommodates varied behavior needs.

We then ensure a dynamic learning environment by creating days filled with fun experiences, hands-on experiments, and freedom for learners to contribute. Also key is having a schedule that allows for a variety of lessons, as well as downtime for learners.
Last, we create an environment that empowers our camp facilitators. We do this by encouraging community building by welcoming contributions and input from staff, such as having a special say in certain problem-solving procedures.

All of the above contribute to a vibrant camp environment for staff and students during school vacations.

Micaela Balzer, director of innovation and learning, Impression 5 Science Center, Lansing, Michigan

Discovery Place has a strong and successful camp program, with offerings over winter break, spring break, and summer, and our program gets bigger and stronger each year. We’ve been learning from our parents and from our campers about what brings them back year after year and what has them inviting more of their friends to join them.

Our camps cover a wide range of ages and interests, from kindergarten through eighth grade, from space and biology to innovation and the Maker movement. Thanks to this range, families can register all of their children to come on the same day or week, with something exciting for each of them to do.

Each camp encourages hands-on, inquiry-based learning, and we do so through prototyped activities and engaging curricula. Our instructors are all professional educators who keep the children thinking, tinkering, and learning, all while having a fun! Our staff and volunteers return to us year after year, and we are fortunate in our ability to make deeper, more meaningful connections with our campers as they grow up with us. A successful camp program listens to what the community needs. It connects with the children, and above all, has fun with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM)!

Lindsay Stewart, manager, camps and birthday parties, Discovery Place, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina

About the image: Students from Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School playtest the game they created during GAME ON! Photo by J.F. Trey Smith

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