“I can’t tell when we are having fun or when we are learning. It’s just the right balance of fun and learning.”
This was a recent camper’s comment about Camp Launch, the 2-week residential program offered by the Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary. Born out of a desire to help gifted students from all socioeconomic levels, the program provides high-ability middle school students from low-income backgrounds with enrichment and academic opportunities in various areas, including STEM fields. The program, funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, started last year with a group of 47 rising seventh graders, who were invited back this year as rising eighth graders. This year, Camp Launch added a new cohort of rising seventh graders who participated in Lego Robotics or Nanotechnology classes. Eighth graders had the opportunity to take one of two new STEM courses: Acid, Acid, Everywhere: Exploring Chemical, Ecological, and Transportation Systems and Spatial Reasoning.
Camp Launch has four goals:
- To deliver advanced instruction in academic content such as STEM fields, writing, academic self-efficacy, and personal development.
- To provide enrichment opportunities in a wide variety of content areas.
- To encourage the development of peer support networks.
- To develop in campers a future orientation that includes a college education, along with preparation that will help them take advantage of opportunities to achieve that goal.
All the experienced staff members, including counselors and teachers, have strived to meet these goals. Dr. Tracy L. Cross, Executive Director of the Center for Gifted Education, shared this advice with the students and their parents: “Dreams without action are only dreams; dreams with action, but not enough information, are doomed to mediocrity; dreams with action, based on significant information, are destined to be reached.” Camp Launch focuses on increasing students’ confidence and provides the “significant information” needed to help them achieve their dreams.
Counselors and teachers agreed that there were both academic and social benefits for the students. “I think for many of my campers, the value of Camp Launch is as much social and emotional as it is academic. Yes, when my students study acids and bases in physical science this school year, they are going to be light years ahead of their classmates. But much more importantly in my mind, they are also considerably further along in figuring out who they are as young adults,” said Richmond teacher, Rob Whitehead. “Camp Launch presents opportunities for the students to push themselves socially into new situations and try on new ways of interacting with other kids outside of the predefined roles they assume at home with family and friends. I think the more times that adolescents are provided chances to try on new personas and experience new ideas, the more successful they become at identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.”
Because the rising eighth graders were returning for a second year, in the Personal Development class they were assigned as mentors for the seventh-grade students in the hopes that they could help them in their transition to camp and share some of the benefits of having come to camp before. During a recent focus group of returning campers, one student’s experience would attest to that: “I am more open since going to Camp Launch. Because people were there from all different places and I got to know them, it made me more willing to get to know new people and try new things at my school.”
Students also reported a greater sense of resiliency after participation. One student noted, “I used to give up when something was really hard, but in robotics when we didn’t get it right, he [the teacher] let us do it until we got it right, so now if I don’t get it the first time, I just take a break and come back and try again and then I get it.”
Several mentioned the benefit of having the counselors with them throughout the day and how their experience was enriched as a result. Counselor Rachel Brooks stated, “The children were grateful for their time on William and Mary’s campus and elated that the program was not limited to one summer, so they could come back to experience the engaging coursework, enhance their science and mathematical skills, and reunite with friends made through the program. One of my campers wrote me a note that said, ‘You have boosted our self esteem A LOT,’ and I think that sentiment was a common feeling about the camp as a whole.”
Currently, Camp Launch funding only targets middle school students. Participating school districts were Charles City Public Schools, King and Queen County Public Schools, Newport News Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools, Petersburg Public School, Portsmouth Public Schools, Richmond Public Schools, and Sussex County Public Schools.