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10 great summer camps for kids who love nature and science

Candy Williams
February13/ 2017

The calendar says summer is still months away. But before you know it, school will be out and parents will hear that all-too-familiar whine: “There’s nothing to do!”

Now’s the time to ensure your future scientists, inventors, computer engineers, and botanists will be engrossed by fun summertime activities that are stimulating, challenging and (shhh!) educational.

Registration is now open at many Pittsburgh summer camps. The most popular camps will fill up quickly, so don’t wait to sign up your kids for a meaningful adventure.

In our Summer Camps Part 1 installment, check out day camps that give kids a chance to explore nature, science and other intellectual subjects.

Next week, Kidsburgh will post Summer Camps Part 2 for kids who enjoy the arts, performance and more physical activities.

1. For wilderness adventurers

This summer day camp takes the word “camp” a little more seriously.

Kids interested in learning wilderness survival skills will thrive at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Summer Survival Camp aimed at students who have completed sixth or seventh grade. Campers will learn shelter and fire building, how to find water and food, whittling, first aid, knot tying, and outdoor preparedness. The week-long experience takes place at Frick Environmental Center and Frick Park.

“The Parks Conservancy’s Survival Camp is several things at once,” says Camila Rivera-Tinsley, director of education. “It’s a great way to learn about the amazing resources of nature, experience team building, and enhance self-confidence and self-esteem. And learning these skills in Pittsburgh’s awesome parks with smart, enthusiastic naturalist educators is just plain fun.”

Survival Campers will learn how to build a fire and create shelter in less-than-ideal conditions, how to identify safe food and water sources, and first aid skills that will last a lifetime.

“It is inspiring to see the transformation and bonding of campers as they experience nature in all its and beauty and wonder,” Rivera-Tinsley says.

“Frick Park was designed specifically to give the feeling of being immersed in nature,” says Scott Roller, senior manager, communications and creative. “And it is our city’s only regional park that has no public interior roads – only bike/hiking/walking trails. It’s perfect for survival camp.”

Camp dates are June 19-23 or July 17-21. The cost is $160 for the week-long camp. Other summer camps include Kinds and Kids Nature Camps and Outdoor Expeditions.


summer camps
Several camps at Carnegie Science Center offer kids the chance to help build and program a robot. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center

2. For out-of-this-world dreamers

Building a robot is all in a day’s work for young campers at Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore. One of the new camps offered this summer is Robotics Space Challenge, for ages 10-11.

Campers will work with their mission crew to design a LEGO Mindstorm rover and then investigate, observe, calculate and apply their knowledge to solve specific tasks. When they’re transported to a Martian landscape, they’ll have to work together using everything they’ve learned to complete a series of mission objectives.

Three sessions of Robotics Space Challenge are offered: July 10-14, July 24-28 and Aug. 7-11. The cost is $280, which includes a materials fee.

Many other camps are available for all ages. They include coding, Minecraft, building apps, and investigating creepy, crawly bugs among the lineup.

summer camps
Star Warrior camper can explore the world of rocks, minerals, and crystals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History

3. For “Star Wars” fans

“Star Wars” fans should be over the moon – or even the universe – for Star Warriors, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s new summer camp designed for kids ages 6 and 7.

Star Warriors asks campers to consider if life is really that different “in a galaxy far, far away …”

Kids will find out by comparing the plants, animals, and biomes of the “Star Wars” universe with those of their own world. They will discover what makes a “tauntaun” – the “Star Wars” snow lizard – so well suited to its habitat. They’ll have an opportunity to design their own creature and examine crystals to determine which ones would give their “light saber” their favorite color.

“Don your Jedi gear,” says spokeswoman Kelsey Shea. “It’s time to discover the science behind the fantasy.”

The Star Warriors camp is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 26-30. Cost is $250. Check out the schedule for other summer camps.

summer camps
Students meet a kinkajou up close and personal during a summer camp at Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo by Paul A. Selvaggio

4. For future veterinarians and paleontologists

Pennsylvania native animals – plus more exotic creatures – are part of the backdrop for Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s Animal Adventures Summer Zoo Camp.

New this year, Veterinary Camp will give students ages 12 and 13 an inside look at what it’s like to care for the animals. Kids will accompany the veterinary staff on their rounds as they check in on patients and provide care to more than 9,000 zoo residents. The experience will provide campers with hands-on opportunities to learn about the field of veterinary medicine.

“Campers have the opportunity to tour the zoo, meet keepers and learn important information about their favorite animals,” says spokeswoman Tracy Gray. “Classroom time includes crafts and the opportunity to meet special animals, many that can be found throughout Pennsylvania.”

Another new addition to the schedule is Dino Days. Half-day sessions are offered from 9 a.m. to noon July 5-7. The cost is $170.

Campers can build bridges across Pittsburgh’s three rivers and design buildings using large foam blocks in the Engineering Playground at Heinz History Center. Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center

5. For time travelers, ‘imagineers,’ and history detectives

Campers will explore Pittsburgh’s past with three provocative new camps at Senator John Heinz History Center.

History Detectives will investigate a Pittsburgh mystery and create a digital story to display their detective work. Aimed at students who’ve completed fifth or sixth grade, two sessions are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the weeks of July 17 and 31.

Time Travelers will take kids back in time through cooking, art, sports and stories of innovation. Two weekly sessions – for kids who’ve completed first or second grade – will be held, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. June 26-30 and 12:30 to 3 p.m. Aug. 7-11. Time travelers will participate in hands-on sessions throughout the History Center and create pieces of history to take home with them.

Pittsburgh Imagineers — for students who have completed third or fourth grade — will give kids a chance to “let their imagination soar and engineer it down to the earth,” says Nathan Rodda, education programs coordinator. Campers can become an “imagineer” and have fun completing an Imagineering Design Challenge. Two sessions will be held from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. the weeks of July 10 and 24.

Cost is $175 for Time Travelers half-day camp; $225 for Pittsburgh Imagineers and Pittsburgh’s History Detectives full-day camps.

Students in Luminari’s Ambassador Camp visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Luminari

6. For learning the science of diplomacy

The Luminari Ambassador Camp for rising 8th to 12th graders is the only camp of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, says director Susan Brozek Scott.

“Although we do draw students who are interested in the careers in the diplomatic field, it is not just for those students,” Scott says. “The activities are designed to help students learn the skills of everyday diplomacy. We talk to business and civic leaders, learn the skills of conflict resolution, immerse ourselves in the food, manners, and customs of other cultures. The students are encouraged to put themselves into other peoples’ shoes, to see the world through a lens of mutual respect and dignified communication.”

After spending four days at the History Center, campers go by bus to Washington, D.C., where they visit embassies and engage in dialogue with professional diplomats.

Last year students visited the German and Royal Thai embassies, and were the guests at the State Department of the Chief of Protocol for President Obama. They made a stop at the Newseum, the museum of the First Amendment and Journalism, and toured the Capital monuments.

The camp scheduled is June 13-21. Camp tuition is $875. A number of partial need-based scholarships are available.

summer camps
A budding botanist gets an assist at planting in Phipps Conservatory’s “Little Sprouts” camp. Photo courtesy of Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens

7. For kids who love growing and eating food

At Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, “My Favorite Fruits” camp is a Little Sprouts favorite.

“Every day, our 2- and 4-year old campers learn about the shapes, tastes, sizes, textures and colors of fruits. We explore and express through singing, dancing and creating,” says Connie, George, director of marketing and communications.

Campers use their senses to touch, smell, see, taste – and even listen to – different fruits. Then, they explore Phipps’ Tropical Forest to discover some of the fruits on the sweet orange, Kaffir lime and coffee trees. A stop at the Tropical Market in the Rain Forest area of Phipps gives them a chance to check out some of the fruits that grow in the Congo. Kids will create art using blueberries and have a fruit scavenger hunt around the lagoon.

“My Favorite Fruits” is a four-day camp, held from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on July 17-20. The cost is $80. Other classes for older kids are Budding Botanists and Seedlings Scientists. Green thumbs and dirty hands are included!

summer camps
Learning how and why things work is part of the mission of The Ellis School’s STEAM camp. Photo courtesy of The Ellis School

8. For techie types

Imagine creating an LED-powered wind turbine, a solar-powered vibrobot and stop-motion animation using 3-D printed and laser-cut backdrops.

That’s part of the lineup for high school students at the Ellis School’s summer camps.

The Ellis School is partnering with its neighbors at TechShop in Bakery Square to bring exciting, new hands-on Summer Camps for students entering grades 5 to 12.

TechShop’s popular, hands-on STEAM programming is structured to immerse students in a creative environment that covers science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. In every subject, campers will be taught how to approach life as a problem-solver.

For students entering grades 5 to 8, there’s Design and Build Camp, with projects that teach campers the basics of digital design software using laser cutters, 3-D printers, vinyl cutters, and standard shop tools.

Sessions are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 10-14. The cost is $550.

summer camps
A summer camp participant on an outdoor adventure at the DiscoverGround nature exploration area of Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania

9. For lovers of the great outdoors

Oh, wilderness! Kids can get back to nature – and away from the computer and video games for a while – at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s summer camps, offered in half- or full-day formats at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel and Succop Nature Park in Butler.

“Our summer camps are designed to get kids engaged in the natural world,” says Rachel Handel, communications director.

One of the new offerings this summer is Sustainability Camp for middle and high school students. The camp focuses on the importance of insects and birds to the ecosystem and the importance of harvesting water. Other topics include composting, soil science, invasive weed species, garden design and more.

The Audubon Society’s full list of camps is available online. The cost for camps is $300; $150 for half-day sessions. Scholarships are available.

summer camps
Children sharpen their computer skills at JCC’s Hi-Tech Learning camp. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

10. For gamers and game designers

Teamwork counts. Sharpening kids’ computer skills at the Hi-Tech Learning day camp is best done in pairs.

“Our camps are designed to transform your child’s obsession with current technology into a positive learning experience,” says Meredith Brown, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s program development coordinator. “Students work in partners in our camps. We help them learn how to effectively work with another person to create something amazing with technology.”

While technology can create isolation, Brown with Hi-Tech, Brown says, “we can combat that problem and show kids that human interaction and technology aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Campers join other Minecraft fans to complete a series of fun challenges and the ultimate collaborative project to demonstrate their crafting skills. Kids can share tips and tricks and create new worlds. They will learn how to use computers, and specially designed software to create a video game following the same process real video game developers use to create the games they play at home.

Hi-Tech Learning day camps are scheduled for grades 2-6 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. July 17-21 and Aug. 7-11 in the Squirrel Hill-Robinson Building. The cost is $450. Hi-Tech Learning camps are a tiny part of the vast offerings at the JCC. Visit the web-site for more.

Summer Camps Part 2: Coming Feb. 20!

Candy Williams

Candy Williams is a freelance writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in national and local publications. She lives in the South Hills.

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