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Not Your Mama’s Summer Camp

By Beth A. Klahre, posted May 5, 2023
UNCW campers explore a local marsh and learn about marine organisms and their habitats. (Photo c/o UNCW)
School’s almost out, and summer camps for tweens and teens will soon be in full swing. This summer’s camps offer many new adventures, indoors and out.

Erin Moran, assistant director at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s MarineQuest, has been preparing for this summer’s camps for the past nine months. The marine science enrichment program for ages 4 to 17 offers hands-on curriculum and experiential field trips. MarineQuest offers junior-, intermediate- and senior-level day programs as well as one- to three-week residential and commuter programs.

“We incorporate the scientific process – problem, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, conclusion and communication of results – plus technology and tools into our curriculum in addition to workforce development skills. Attendees step into the shoes of university students as they conduct scientific studies in UNCW labs and research vessels alongside faculty, staff and students,” Moran said. 

In addition to core programming, MarineQuest offers new programs based on student assessments, parent and teacher feedback from school programs and new marine science discoveries. 

“The newest big thing at MarineQuest is our coastal and ocean engineering program. We have added sensor development, robotics and coastal civil engineering into our full-day program. In our intermediate-level programs, we have added ocean engineering in our dynamic coastal environment introducing sensor development. Ocean robotics students build remotely operated vehicles,” Moran said.  

A typical day is 50% classroom/lab and 50% outdoors, incorporating hands-on learning and inquiry-driven activities. Each age group has a learning mission that stems from North Carolina science standards and builds upon students’ knowledge. 

“It’s an active day,” said Moran. “Our teens really get fired up when they make meaningful connections with university faculty. They love being with like-minded youth while experiencing marine science through fishing, kayaking, taking a research cruise or being in university facilities.”

MarineQuest instructors are current or recently graduated university students in marine science and related fields. Moran, whose passion for science and the environment was fueled by family experiences and travel, has an undergraduate degree in marine biology with a minor in oceanography and a master’s in marine science. 

“I love exploring, visiting coastal habitats and observing what makes them so unique, whether on foot, kayak or boat,” Moran said. “I love that I am able to share this passion with students.” 

At the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Karissa Bearer is the lead special activities instructor. 

“Community science and engaging young conservationists is at the heart of our 2023 summer camps. Campers ages 12 to 14 go on field trips and guided nature hikes and have the unique opportunity to contribute to conservation projects. The campers meet and talk to a variety of staff at the aquarium and partner organizations to gain insights into careers in animal care and conservation,” said Bearer. 

All ages of campers are immersed in indoor and outdoor habitats. Campers interact with sea turtle hatchlings, sand tiger sharks and baby seahorses. Crabs, birds and lizards keep things interesting outside. 

“A favorite for campers is the behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium to see firsthand what it takes to work with animals and to lead by example as conservationists. Campers love animal meet-and-greets the most,” Bearer said.

The aquarium works with KultureCity, a nonprofit organization that provides Sensory Inclusive Certification, educating camp leaders on how to better engage and serve individuals with different abilities and sensory needs. 

“Our priority is making summer camp a unique and exceptional experience for each camper,” said Bearer, who has a graduate degree in coastal and marine education. “My passion for engaging the next generation in sustainability and conservation makes a difference every day in how we inspire young campers.”

At Creative Arts Camp presented by Thalian Association Community Theater, performance is the on-trend program this summer. 

“Performance is filling up faster than art camps. Kids want to be more active than they are in a classroom,” said Stacie Smith, Community Arts Center’s director and summer camp director.

Performance, as well as arts camps, give each camper an opportunity to participate in a showcase. “Everyone has a chance to be who they are. That’s big,” said Smith, recalling her own time as a Thalian camper in middle and high school.

Campers ages 4 through 17 are introduced to all aspects of creative arts including performing arts, technical theatre, visual arts, ceramics and filmmaking. This summer’s programs are built on surveys completed by prior campers and parents. The half-day Creative Munchkins Series for ages 4 through 6 focuses on art, movement and play. The Rising Stars Series for ages 7 to 10 is aimed at dramatic and imaginative youngsters. The Old Pros Series for ages 10 to 14 helps young actors, techies and artists fine-tune their passion. The Broadway on Second Street Series is a two-week theater-intensive production camp that gives future stars the chance to participate in a full-length show from start to finish.  

This year’s camps will have 15 junior counselors who were previous camp attendees. 
Smith said, “Seeing campers who come back every year, watching them grow and find their own voice, is most rewarding.”
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