The camps, ranging from private half-day camps for younger children to longer sleep-away camps for teenagers, cater to kids who are passionate about STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) or who just love immersing themselves in projects involving thinking creatively and problem-solving.
"We're definitely seeing a lot more summer programs that focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and also programs that combined those elements with art," said Kathy Heraghty, program director and founder of Destination Science, based in Orange, California. The group, which began in California in 2000, now runs summer camps for children ages 5 to 11 in five states.
"The education system is slowly coming around to putting more emphasis on the sciences, and parents are also beginning to change some pretty old-fashioned ideas about summer camps and also about science, which is about way more than data and Bunsen burners," she said.
STEM-oriented summer camps often include more traditional summer pursuits like swimming and crafts, but the focus is on the fun of "thinking like a scientist" in more depth than is often possible during the school year.
"We focus on things that are playful and fun and that kids can connect to, like building a really cool car with a solar cell," Heraghty said.
"This summer we are introducing a Super Heroes camp that takes a closer looks at bats and spiders and things like warp speed. And robotics and robots are also always exciting to kids."
The camps cost $379 per week for full day camp, with discounts available to those who register early and some scholarships available.
For older kids looking for a sleep-away experience, options include BEAM Camp, in Stafford, New Hampshire, which offers three-and-a-half-week camps for kids ages 10 to 17.
"We're a camp about making things and bringing ideas to life," said co-founder Brian Cohen, who shuns the STEM label because, he said, the emphasis should be on the human side of things and "fashioning physical reality," not on abstract concepts.
"We give kids the experience of making a big idea happen on their own. Last summer, the kids in one session built a 30-foot kaleidoscope, and another session built a boat powered by a human-size hamster wheel," he said.
In addition to building and problem-solving, campers swim daily and spend time with chefs, artists, architects and engineers to help broaden their ideas about creative career options. The camps, open to boys and girls, have a hefty $5,200 price tag, but Cohen said about 40 per cent of campers receive partial or full scholarships.
Emagination, a much larger summer camp focusing on coding, game design and other computer skills, offers day camp and sleep-away options for kids ages 8 to 17 in five major cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Camps range in price from $845 per week for day camp to almost $3,000 for some two-week programs. As with many science camps, some scholarships are available.
"STEM summer camps are wilderness exploration, but in the wilderness of exploration and inquiry," said Meg Kaufer, president of the STEM Alliance of Larchmont and Mamaroneck, New York, one of a growing number of grassroots organizations helping promote STEM activities in and out of schools.
One of Kaufer's sons attended a high-school-level summer sleep-away camp at Brown University involving 3D printers and bronze casting. One of her daughters attended an all-girls robotics day camp for seventh graders.
"Do it yourself does not mean do it alone, and for a lot of kids who are used to tinkering solo, having a rare chance to explore science with people who think the same way really helps them form a social identity," she said. "That can be truly transformational."
www.ScienceBuddies.org lists a wide range of summer science programs across the United States, as does www.lmstemalliance.org .
Destination Science: www.destinationscience.org
Beam Camp: www.beamcamp.com