Last summer in Alameda, 18 middle school girls had the rare opportunity to learn coding from tech-savvy teens. The budding engineers were the inaugural participants in She STEMs, a camp that three local high school students started, in part, to help younger girls with an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (known collectively as STEM subjects) learn they’re not alone.
"In my AP computer-science class last year, I was one of six girls out of 30 students," says She STEMs’ 17-year-old founder and executive director, Ashley Chu, who hopes to mitigate the negative effects of that gender disparity. "It’s good to see someone who’s not far from your age pursue something that you’re interested in. That’s pretty empowering."
This year, Chu and her team plan to run at least one weeklong camp for girls ages 10 to 14 in early July. Thanks to sponsorship, last year’s fee was only $50, and Chu hopes to keep it low this year too.
The camp is hardware-focused, with participants using the Arduino platform to build electronic devices. "We do coding activities and hands-on activities, rather than just being on screens all day," Chu says. "We also have an entrepreneurial aspect, by having the girls create a product."
Chu and her colleagues, all high school seniors, are now balancing their personal next steps—namely, preparing for college—with growing the nonprofit. They’re transitioning local leadership to younger girls at Alameda High, while looking to establish chapters elsewhere. So far, they have a branch in Tennessee and are working on launching one in Chicago. "We’ll be able to start chapters in our respective college communities too," Chu notes. In Alameda, She STEMs also teaches coding workshops at the library and 3-D printing and hardware development at the Boys and Girls Club. shestems.netlify.com.
While She STEMs may be the East Bay’s only educational camp that’s run by teens, the region boasts a plethora of other STEM camps. The best of these programs mix up the instruction with kid-pleasing tools like Lego and Minecraft, exciting projects, and plenty of physical activity. (After all, who wants to spend a sunny day hunched over a screen or textbook?) Here are a few more summer STEM camps—with registration open now—that are so fun, kids will scarcely realize they’re learning.
Chabot Space and Science Center
Surrounded by parklands, Chabot Space and Science Center offers children plenty of room to get active indoors and out. Inside, the museum’s planetarium, theater, and exhibits are all at the campers’ disposal. Outside, they burn energy at the playground or hike through giant redwoods.
"Many of our hands-on science activities are completed outdoors," says Natalie Mann, Chabot’s camps and community programs manager. Depending on the session, that might mean making "sun prints" on the observation deck or drop-testing a Mars lander off a balcony.
Weeklong programs for first through sixth graders include Space Camp, where kids experience the thrill of flight in a rocket simulator; Camp Create, where gadget lovers build wearable tech devices and experiment with coding; and Science Superheroes, where campers explore the science of superpowers such as flying or invisibility. Oakland, chabotspace.org.
With locations in Tilden Regional Park and Roberts Regional Recreation Area, Sarah’s Science is the rare STEM camp that takes place entirely outdoors. In the mornings, kids ages 4 to 14 create science projects that they get to take home; most afternoons look more like a traditional summer camp.
"Kids need to be outside, running around in nature," says Sarah Shaffer, who founded the program almost 25 years ago. "We take hikes, we build gnome homes and forts in the woods. At the Tilden site, we walk over to Lake Anza and spend the day at the lake."
Depending on the session, campers could make a geyser out of Mentos mints, build a transforming truck-robot, or race a propeller-powered unicorn.
"My goal is for kids to realize how much fun science is," Shaffer adds. "We make toys, and then dance the science around the toys." Berkeley and Oakland, sarahscience.com.
Camp Brainy Bunch
Camp Brainy Bunch offers educational day camps all over the Bay Area, with some STEM-focused programs for first through sixth graders. Sessions include Incredible Inventors, where campers create product prototypes; Extraordinary Engineers, where kids might design a geodesic dome or build a zip line; and Dynamite Doctors, which focuses on the human body.
"In addition to their classroom time, students have plenty of time to be kids, run around, and do outdoor activities," notes Nermin Fraser, the Berkeley-headquartered camp’s director of admissions. "Our goal is to help integrate the best of school with the best of summer." Dublin, Fremont, Oakland, and Orinda; campbrainybunch.com.
The Coder School
For kids who just want to code, there are camps where they do just that (in addition to coding-related outdoor activities). During The Coder School’s weeklong sessions, kids ages 7 to 13 build an app, then show it off on Friday’s Demo Day, making the camp feel like a junior Y Combinator. Participants can choose from subjects like game programming, website building, and artificial intelligence. Run by a couple of Silicon Valley dads, The Coder School now has franchises all over the country, including several in the East Bay. Berkeley, Fremont, Pleasanton, and San Ramon; thecoderschool.com.
More Ways to Learn
If a week of STEM camp is too much for your child, try one of these classes or clubs instead.
The Gardens at Heather Farm
Held at Walnut Creek’s Heather Farm Park, a summer Nature Detectives series teaches first through fourth graders about pollination, composting, biodiversity, and more. Programs are also available during the school year. gardenshf.org.
Diablo Valley College
DVC hosts youth programs—including lectures and events—in San Ramon and Pleasant Hill. This summer’s College for Kids course catalog features such STEM subjects as computer science, MATLAB, 3-D plotting, and robotics. dvc.edu.
Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment
Oakland’s video game museum offers free drop-in game-programming classes on Saturdays for children ages 8 to 14. themade.org/scratch.
4H and Scout Programs
These days, kids can get a taste of STEM from almost any organization they belong to. 4H’s STEM program offers robotics, plant and animal science, programming, and more. The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America also teach subjects ranging from cybersecurity and space exploration to math, tech, and various sciences. 4h.ucanr.edu, girlscouts.org, scouting.org.