participant interacting in online virtual camp

STAR Camp Blasts off Into Virtual Programs

STEM-focused camp continues to reach bright young minds with virtual programs.
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2020 has been an unpredictable year for many across the globe. For STAR Camp, they couldn’t have predicted spending their 30th anniversary not celebrating at their in-person camps. The camp flourishes in a tight knit community that looks forward to hosting campers for day and overnight sessions each year. As COVID-19 concerns began to rise, it left the team wondering, “What now?” The answer: virtual programs.  

The Background

Since 1991, STAR Camp, formerly known as Astro Camp, has been working to ensure every student has the opportunity to explore, discover and imagine. Its interactive, STEM focused classes annually capture the minds of 5,000 students throughout the school year for annual field trips and over 200 campers for summer sessions. Once a camper herself, Director Annika Jensen, knows the profound effect the camp can have.

Jensen says, “STAR Camp is what inspired me to become an aerospace engineer. The camp not only teaches valuable STEM lessons, but it also provides the foundation for leadership and growth.”

Jensen isn’t the only one who has been personally impacted by the camp. Each member of the STAR Camp team was a camp participant in one way or another at sometime. Amy Gull, assistant director, found her way to Astro Camp after attending many field trips to the campgrounds with her own children. Current team leaders have also been campers themselves.

With such a strong bond to the camp, it’s without question that Jensen and her team were able to rally in the wake of the unknown and successfully transition efforts to virtual programming.

The Transition  

While STAR Camp thrives on the opportunity to meet with students in-person, staff knew they had to pivot plans when the school district the camp operates under made the decision to transition to virtual programming.

Jensen says, “Our choice was to adapt or cancel, and canceling was never an option for us. These are discouraging times, and we wanted to be able to provide something for kids to look forward to and engage in this summer.”

Luckily, the camp had some virtual experience under its belt. Jensen and her team were successfully hosting virtual field trips and classes online since March 2020 when schools began to close. They were able to take this experience and expand on it. After joining a webinar hosted by ACTIVE, which focused on virtual programming, Jensen said the pieces started to fall into place. 

With the ACTIVEWorks Camp & Class Manager Email Tool, STAR Camp quickly sent email blasts to parents—allowing the camp to update its audience continuously. Jensen also notes that word-of-mouth was a powerful form of advertising to help spread news of their new virtual offerings. In just two short weeks, Jensen and her team were able to completely transition their operations.

The Departure

From her own experience as a parent, Jensen fully understood that both parents and students were beginning to feel the burn out sensation that comes with online learning.

“One of our core goals with STAR Camp is to make science accessible for all. Based on feedback mostly from my own family members, the idea for Camp in a Box was born.”

Camp in a Box provides the campers with non-screen activities. Every Monday, Jenson’s team mails interactive boxes to campers that contain materials for STEM oriented projects (along with activity instructions). The best part? Campers have the ability to complete the projects at their own pace. They can finish all at once or space it out throughout the week, making the adventure last until their next box arrives. For students who need some extra help, they can easily follow along with team leaders through recorded tutorials hosted on YouTube. Additionally, the boxes contain house-hold materials. So, if a student wanted to recreate the project, they can easily grab materials commonly found throughout the kitchen and try again.

It doesn’t stop there. Beyond Camp in a Box, STAR Camp created content for three live classes: Astronaut Training Camp, Odyssey Camp and Academy Camp. Campers are able to log into Zoom and Google Meets each morning to join team leaders for live, team building classes. Astronaut Training campers will experience simulated space missions and complete projects that relate to camp objectives. Odyssey campers will focus on planetary exploration by building portions of a Mars base and role playing as mission specialists. Academy Campers will have the opportunity to experience both virtual and in-person activities with lessons focused on leadership.

Advice to Others

While they miss hosting live sessions, STAR Camp knew the switch to virtual programming was needed.

Jensen says, “Nothing can replace our in-person camps and those will be our focus, but we love how far-reaching the online programming can be.”

For other directors who are hesitant about making the transition, Jensen adds, “Don’t be afraid to try new things. Use your team but also ask for advice from outside your organization. Be flexible, even after you’ve made what you think are final decisions.”

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