By Alex Russell
With the weather getting warmer, there is a growing abundance of options for families looking to enroll their kids in fun, group-based, and educational summer camps and activities right here in the Northern Virginia area.
Besides the typical, year-round athletic and nature-based summer programs, STEM-focused camps have grown in both variety and prominence both in Falls Church and in an ever-widening radius around the Little City.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the “actual and projected growth in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)” field has created “an emphasis on STEM education.” The NCES report also addresses the fact that “the supply of students interested in” STEM has spurred “educators and policymakers” to work on “increasing student interest and engagement in K — 12 STEM education.”
Findings published by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) underscore this emphasis on STEM, with “technological competence” and “problem solving and creative thinking” being some of the biggest components in education today.
Tim Newton, STEM Program Manager at Baroody Camps in Falls Church, shares this perspective, saying that “over the past two years, it has become extremely noticeable how impactful important the virtual world currently is.” The demand for these camps is increasing, and as a result, Baroody Camps strives to “provide those necessary building blocks for young learners to follow their passions.”
Regarding their methodology, Newton explains that “the programs that we run are not just fun and games, although that is what it may look like at first to a student.” The various STEM classes available at Baroody Camps — from Lego Robotics to Minecraft 101, as well as Scratch Coding and Kodu Game Design — “build upon critical thinking, social emotional skills, problem solving, computer literacy, and much more.”
Acknowledging that not every school has the needed means at its disposal to fully engage in technology education, Baroody Camps works to “bring the majority of what is needed, such as devices, laptops, Lego kits” among other items, “so that students normally need only to bring their imagination and learning spirit.”
The general timeframe for camps and events at Baroody spans a 6 — 10 week course, running once a week for an hour before or after school. “We run classes like this during the fall, winter, and spring as we work with the PTA.” During the summer months, Newton says that “scheduling takes a bit of a shift as” Baroody Camps hosts full and “half day, week-long camps,” helping children “develop their math, reading, fine motor, and typing skills as they learn new concepts in engineering and computer science.”
Vera Lichtenberg, Founding Director of Mason Game and Technology Academy (MGTA) in Fairfax, VA — which is in turn part of the Virginia Serious Game Institute (VSGI) and the Mason Computer Game Design Program — shed light on MGTA and the chance it offers to those students wishing to explore core STEM concepts with university professors as well as advanced-level students.
MGTA, founded in 2013, offers classes and programs that are assembled using the efforts and expertise of Mason’s Game Design and Computer Science program. Lichtenberg explained that MGTA’s courses are “modeled after the university’s Computer Game Design” curriculum, “infusing aspects of entrepreneurship, team dynamics, and project-based learning into every class.”
“MGTA classes bridge education and technology through experiential learning activities,” making for a program that teaches students “long-lasting skill sets that help them adapt to the rapid changes and advancements in technology.” Regarding the way classes operate, she added that “each class concludes with a final project and presentation, to enhance participants’ college application portfolios.”
MGTA offers on-site programs and events, as well as virtual options that, according to Lichtenberg, capture “the energy and magic of a live classroom.”
“All of our online courses include a mix of live-streamed interactive learning experiences combined with team and/or virtual classroom research, design, and creation time, as well as help sessions from TA’s (teaching assistants).” Students can expect to learn a variety of topics, such as coding and game design through programming languages like Unity and Python, 3D art modeling, 2D digital game art, and Roblox game development, among other related spheres.
Brian Moran, co-founder of Boolean Girl — an Arlington-based non-profit organization founded in 2014 that works to teach coding and engineering to girls in girls-only and co-ed camps and virtual classes — spoke about the organization’s mission to “improve gender diversity in STEM.”
In addition to camps held during the summer, Boolean Girl offers “after school classes” and “in-person events,” many of them free, in order to “reach as many girls as possible,” with a focus on “girls in grades 3 — 8.”
Moran pointed out that studies have displayed how “in elementary school, girls are just as interested in STEM, but that changes rapidly through middle school.” At Boolean Girl, the educational staff tries to “prepare the girls to enter these programs on equal footing with the boys who have frequently been coding for years.”
Expanding on the camps, he outlined that the curriculum begins with “coding in Scratch, a block-based language developed by MIT to teach kids to code.” Other camps in the program expand upon those initial coding lessons, teaching “electronics where kids build circuits.”
Eventually, students can participate in camps that offer instruction in “Python and Artificial Intelligence,” which are geared towards middle school-age girls.
Creativity — which is underscored through storytelling in the level-one coding camp — as well as “cross-subject areas,” like animation, are some of the added benefits that round-out the program. Students get to “animate the stories that they create,” learning to code as well as how to “build a story with a beginning, middle, and end.”
Moran clarified that while Boolean Girl advertises “camps as all girls, over time” they have seen an “increasing demand from” boys, as well. “Each summer some boys register and attend” and get to “experience what the girls in STEM camps typically experience,” i.e., being “the only boy in the room.”
Reflecting on the teaching staff, Moran shared that “99 percent of the teaching is done by…female college students getting STEM degrees at top tier schools like UVA, Cornell, Penn, VA Tech.” Boolean Girl also hires local high school students to assist with instructional duties.
“More and more of the [high school] students are girls that participated in our programs when they were younger…these women are great mentors and role models to the younger girls,” with some of them having gone to “the same elementary school or middle school the campers are going to.”
Moran sees great value in the act of “teaching a subject” one is studying, explaining that this helps the high school and college students increase their “mastery” of the particular STEM branch they are involved in.
The Boolean Girl Clubhouse, a weekend program set up for girls and non-binary individuals who are interested in learning coding and electronics, “is a great way for girls thinking about our camps to get a feel” for the sorts of events and activities offered at Boolean Girl.
The Club, sponsored by Amazon, meets for three hours on Saturdays from 9 a.m. — 12 p.m. Topics like “digital wellness,” which focuses on making smart, responsible choices online, are also incorporated into the Club.
Baroody Camps, the Mason Game and Technology Academy, and Boolean Girl follow Covid-19 health protocols to ensure the safety of all involved. For more information about Baroody Camps, visit baroodycamps.com or email [email protected]; for more information on the MGTA, visit mgta.gmu.edu or email [email protected]; for more information on Boolean Girl, visit booleangirl.org or email [email protected]