Parenting  |  Things to Do

10 Great Summer Camps for Kids Who Are Really, Really Into STEM

Forget canoeing and swimming. These programs geek out on coding and robotics.

The idea of children spending long, hot summer days canoeing, hiking, swimming, and lighting campfires seems positively antiquated these days.

“I would love to send my kid to the Y—it would sure be less expensive,” says Evelyn Nicholas of Rockville. But “this is what Evan is interested in.”

“This” being all things tech. Nicholas spent $1,200 last summer for a weeklong iD Tech camp at the University of Maryland, during which her son Evan learned how to build a computer. “He loved it,” Nicholas says. “He’s starting to get into career thinking.” Evan is 13.

In Washington’s academically competitive environment, demand for STEM programs isn’t limited to school. According to the American Camp Association, about one-third of summer camps nationally now offer some sort of curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and math. Not that they’re uniform—or uniformly nerdy. You can find camps these days that teach e-sports strategies, coding, robotics, app development, 3-D modeling, and augmented reality.

What to expect

If you’re looking to help Junior skip a grade, you’re probably out of luck. STEM camp isn’t summer school.

Consider the actual list of activities. The basic idea should be fun: Don’t train kids just how to code—teach them how to program their drone to fight in a battle royal.

“It adds to your learning; it brings you joy. Enrichment is not working on critical subjects and skills to move on to the next level of education,” says Stephanie Vordick, an adviser with Tips on Trips and Camps.

Camp is also long on so-called soft skills—teamwork, leadership, learning to experiment and fail.

“It’s not about taking the course but utilizing the opportunity,” says Nermin Fraser, director of admissions at Education Unlimited, whose camps offer courses on topics such as neuroanatomy and astronomy at Georgetown University. Her camps are for the more “academically motivated” kid, but she says all campers should come out of their enrichment experience with new life skills they can use.

How to choose

While many camps mix computer-focused activities with old-fashioned camp games such as tennis or pie-throwing, others offer a hefty dose of screen time.

When Stephanie Vordick consults with families picking summer camps, she asks: Can your child handle sitting for hours in front of a screen, or does she need to get up and run around?

If it’s the latter, make sure there are enough age-appropriate breaks or non-tech activities throughout the day.

“Those breaks aren’t just brain breaks,” says Vordick. “Those breaks are helping making social connections with kids.”

At TIC, a camp that has offered computer programming for four decades, equal time each day is given to sports. “They learn about sportsmanship and inclusivity,” says owner Emily Riedel. “Then maybe they go back to school and do things they never would have done, like try out for the soccer team.”

How much it will cost

Specialized camps can come with steep prices. Tuition at the ones we reviewed start at about $175 a week for a half-day program and climb to more than $3,000 a week for a full-day course with overnight stays.

Many camps offer scholarships, early-bird sign-ups, and discounts for siblings or referrals.

Evelyn Nicholas says her family scaled back on other summer activities for Evan to pay for computer camp. “When I saw the price, I was thinking, ‘Are they going to send a rocket to the moon?’ ” But she says it was worth it: “He’s into anime and animation, and he wants to draw. It brought his artistic side out. ”

Ten Stem Camp options

The following are some camps in the region with a strong emphasis on STEM. Unless otherwise noted, all are full-day day camps.

A camp we rated 5 on the intensity scale (?????) has fewer structured and unstructured breaks from screens than a camp rated 1 (?).

Education Unlimited ?????

This camp at Georgetown University gives driven kids a taste of college life. Courses focus on single subjects, such as neuroanatomy and cardiology. Ages 10 through 18; tuition starts at $1,795 for one week; extended day and overnight stays available.

Black Rocket ????

An international program that provides STEM curricula to local camps, Black Rocket is for the burgeoning gamer, with a focus on 3-D design, classic video games, digital arts, mobile coding, science, and robotics. Ages 6 through 18; locations throughout the area; tuition varies.

Digital Media Academy ????

Areas of learning include 3-D modeling and design, coding and artificial intelligence, film and photography, game design, and music production. One- and two-week sessions available; ages 9 through 18; at George Washington University; tuition starts at $1,295 for one week; lunch and overnight stays available.

iD Tech ????

At one of the area’s oldest summer camps of its kind, kids dive into topics such as video-game design, mobile-app coding, computer building, 3-D printing, and cyber­security. Ages 7 through 17; locations at American, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins (Rockville), and Towson universities as well as the University of Maryland (College Park); tuition starts at $849 for one week; overnight stays and dining-hall meals available.

Lavner Camps ???

Weeklong offerings include “Robotics Camp Tournament Week With LEGO EV3,” “YouTube Camp—Video Production & Vlogs,” and sessions focused on games such as Fortnite and Minecraft that include safe-practice tips. Ages 6 through 14; locations at George Washington and Towson universities; tuition starts at $519; extended day and dining-hall meals available.

Smithsonian Summer Camp ???

With courses in video-game design, 3-D animation, aeronautics, astronomy, mechanical engineering, and more, campers can explore our world or build a virtual world of their own. One-week courses; ages 5 through 14; tuition starts at $316 for one week; before- and after-care available.

Camp Invention ??

In this program—inspired by actual inventors—campers spend the day on creative challenges such as fashioning a cityscape out of upcycled materials. Ages 6 through 12; multiple locations; tuition starts at $225 for one week.

TIC ??

Days are organized into two three-hour blocks: one for sports and one for a child’s chosen tech option—programs include robotics, circuits, animation, and filmmaking. Increasing the number of females in STEM is part of this camp’s mission. Ages 7 through 15; locations in DC, Bethesda, McLean, and Fairfax; tuition starts at $825 for a two-week session; extended-day option available.

Mad Science ?

Geared to younger kids, these camps focus on problem-solving activities such as crime sleuthing and inventing. A mix of hands-on activities and old-fashioned outdoor games. Ages 3 through 12; more than 20 area locations; tuition starts at $315 for one week; half day as well as before- and after-care available.

Steve & Kate’s ?

While kids have options such as coding and filmmaking, there are also sessions in such interests as fashion, breadmaking, music, and sports—and campers can move among activities as they please. Pre­paid day passes let parents drop off and pick up anytime during the week. Ages 4 through 12; locations in Arlington, Capitol Hill, and Alexandria; tuition for the whole summer starts at $2,500; half day available.

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of Washingtonian. In an earlier post of this story, Camp Invention was referred to as the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which is the parent organization.

Grace Cutler

Grace Cutler is a media consultant and digital-video executive. In 2014, she contracted a tick-borne illness while working in her garden in western Loudoun County, forcing her to change the way she eats and drinks and how she thinks about the outdoors. On Twitter, she’s @gcutler.