While Harlem Grown’s summer camp ended only two weeks ago, the difference in my daily routine makes it feel like my time as a camp counselor was a whole summer away. I never realized how busy my days were at camp, until I had “free” time and noticed how quickly the hours went by (and how little I had accomplished). This change in pace has allowed me time to reflect upon my internship with Harlem Grown.
My job as a camp intern was to create a STEM-based curriculum for the campers and lead the oldest group, the Wild Berries, through their daily routine. I was tasked with the responsibility of teaching these kids, and they fired right back with lessons for me. During the first week of camp, I taught a lesson on the basics of compost using graphs and pie charts. While the camper’s memorized the soundbites that I repeated (e.g. compost must reach a temperature of 130° for three days in order to kill any remaining seeds), it was hard to keep their attention throughout the lesson. Learning from this, I switched the format for the organic decomposers lesson. Instead of standing in front of the kids and relaying the information to them, I printed out pictures of different organic and chemical decomposers and hid them around the farm. Splitting the group into two teams, I watched as the campers eagerly scoured the farm to beat the other team in a surprise scavenger hunt. This hands-on method brought out the campers’ interest and encouraged them to interact with the lesson, rather than passively listening to it.
The rest of the early morning curriculum followed this pattern of mixing hands-on physical activity with information. The biggest challenge with teaching the oldest group is their energy/excitement levels. While they tend to listen more closely to information and hold their attention longer than the younger campers, they often are plagued by the question, “why does any of this matter?” As a counselor, it was my job to explain why this information mattered, or at the very least, make it interesting to the kids. Sometimes, their motivation was spurred by the idea of a popsicle reward or more time on the basketball court. Other times, their energy was brought out by the excitement of competition. While most of the early morning compost curriculum was written by another Harlem Grown intern, the lesson plan had to be altered to fit the needs of the campers.
Another challenge of the curriculum was finding a balance between planning ahead and improvising. Several of the curriculum lesson plans involved science experiments or physical models. Planning ahead was easy enough in the early weeks, but as camp progressed, it became easy to forget to order a bag of sand ahead of time, or print out worksheets the night before. This would lead to a slight shift in the next day’s work, which might entail a little more farm work to make up for the missing pieces, or even a game of Night at the Museum. Sometimes, everything was planned out, but the weather intervened and the morning work was replaced by a screening of Finding Nemo. The weather was not the only outside factor affecting our schedule. Making a cardboard model of the solar system was planned to only take one hour per group, but ended up taking two hours for the youngest group, which pushed back the middle group’s STEM period. An origami project for the oldest group was expected to be finished entirely within one hour, when just the folding alone took the entire period. Essentially, in their written form, lesson plans make everything look straightforward and perfect, whereas real life is not so simple. The campers are a collection of enthusiastic, hilarious kids who are concerned with having fun (as they should be!) The number one thing all of these science experiments and lesson plans taught me is that improvisation and adaptation are key to success in a teaching environment, regardless of the students’ ages.
When I look back on the summer, I’m usually laughing at memories, things the campers had said to me, and the nostalgia of what it was like to be a young kid at summer camp. When I was stressed from a day of running around, my campers made me laugh. When I was playing a game of knock-out on the court, my campers were cheering for me. These kids are exceedingly hilarious, intelligent, thoughtful, exceptional humans who rewarded me with experience and fond memories. I will miss this experience and these campers terribly, but I am excited to visit the farm and some of the kids on Saturdays throughout the school year!
Almost in an instant, the summer is over and it’s the last week of Harlem Grown’s summer camp. Realizing that seven weeks of farming, science projects, and basketball shoot-outs have passed by is nearly mind-boggling. Looking back, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have worked with these incredible kids.
During the third week of camp, we completed one of my favorite projects: making treats for the chickens. As a group, we discussed the benefits of keeping chickens (both for their eggs and their help in breaking down food scraps), as well as the chickens’ dietary needs. Based on this, we used pinecones, sunflower butter, and an array of bread crumbs, bird feed, and seeds to make hanging treats. This project helped to segue into our next lesson on biomes and biodiversity.
In order to teach the campers about biodiversity and different climates/biomes, the lesson plan needed to be alter to each group. A lot of the language surrounding biodiversity and biomes can be difficult for younger campers to grasp, so images accompanied our explanations of tundra, taiga, and temperate forests. Teaching the youngest group about biomes was helpful for me personally, because I am accustomed to the oldest group of 12-14 year olds and forget how younger kids tend to think. For example, when asked why plants in the tundra have smaller leaves than plants in other biomes, one camper explained that it was because the picture was printer smaller than the others. While humorous, moments like these remind me that academia can be exclusionary due to pretentious language that alienates more than it educates, and that I need to be more conscious of my word choice and explanations when teaching. Along with our discussion questions, we had the campers draw their favorite biomes, so they could create a more tangible form of the lesson.
While the first half of our STEM projects centered around science and biology, we shifted the focus towards lessons that emphasized experimentation and a bit of math. One lesson plan had the campers create their own recipes based on fruits and vegetables grown on the farms. The process of writing out recipe procedures mirrors that of a science experiment. In order for the experiment or recipe to be reproduced, the instructions must be specific enough that someone else can replicate the design. The campers struggled with language, as it is much easier to write “make a pizza” than to write out the individual steps that encompass making a pizza. It was also fascinating to see how the campers came up with ingredient amounts based on their own, individual logic. For example, in one camper’s recipe for a fruit smoothie, she listed 12 strawberries, 5 ice, and 12 bananas. When I asked if 12 bananas seemed like too many, she explained that you needed even amounts for the fruit flavors to balance out.
The final STEM experiment was a highly requested one from the campers: making slime. The 2018 viral sensation was a favorite among the campers for its satisfying texture, and for its mystifying creation. Using just glue and laundry detergent, our campers learned the importance of balance and experimentation by working diligently to find the perfect balance of stickiness to stretchiness. Making slime is not easy. There is no clear recipe, as it all depends on ratios and mixing techniques. Few campers made the slime perfectly on their first try, but those that failed at first were quick to try again and make careful changes. This experiment brought about the most focus and determination I had seen for a science experiment, and the biggest clean up at camp.
The lessons presented to the campers allowed everyone to experience specific areas of science (biology, ecology, etc.) while also underlining the larger themes of experimentation and the scientific method. While labeled a STEM period, our lessons and activities tended more towards science, because of the age limitations. Campers’ phones are not allowed during camp hours, and it’s not advisable to trust the one camp camera with seven-year olds. Even the idea of introducing more math heavy activities to the campers was difficult, because of the varying abilities of the campers, even within their own age groups. The scientific elements of our STEM periods were very successful, as they presented entertaining, hands-on activities to the kids while sneaking in subtle themes of scientific exploration. In the next few days, I hope to talk about the lessons with the campers and gauge their receptiveness to math/technology-based lessons. While I’m excited to receive feedback on the lessons, I am saddened by the realization that camp is two days from being over, and my daily routine that I’ve grown so accustomed to, as well as my time with the campers who I’ve grown with will be over soon.
For the next six weeks, I have the pleasure of working as a camp intern for Harlem Grown, a non-profit youth organization that encourages children to lead healthy, sustainable lives through its school programs and mentorship. In the summer, kids can take part in a seven-week camp that explores science, urban farming, and other classic summer camp rituals. The campers’ ages range from seven to fourteen, divided into three main groups.
As a camp intern, I, and another Barnard student/Barnard Noyce Teacher Scholar— Victoria Krovatin —have put together a STEM-based curriculum for the three age groups at camp. Brainstorming for the summer, Victoria and I were given the task of dreaming up activities that we would’ve wanted to do at camp. With this freedom, we researched engaging, hands-on activities and compiled a list of projects for the campers.
On the second day of camp, we introduced the scientific method to our younger campers. After going over the basic necessities for plant growth— water, sunlight, soil, etc. —we let the campers decide which variable they wanted to alter. This freedom excited some campers and frightened others. While some proudly exclaimed that they would water their plants ten-times a day, others felt intimidated by the opportunity, fearing they would “be wrong.”
Luckily, science is just as much about failure as it is about success. Giving campers the freedom to change any variable not only affords them the experience of experimental design, but it also gives them a taste of real-life results. Yes, some of the camper’s lettuce seeds will not sprout due to overwatering, or lack of sunlight, or some other change, but this experience will teach them that failure in science, as well as life, still yields important results.
For the oldest group, we combined arts and crafts with a lesson on decomposition. Using newspapers, we created origami boxes that acted as planters, which can be placed directly into the ground. I especially loved this project, because origami teaches a lesson in patience and long-term goals. The repetitive actions and intricate folds feel tedious and frustrating, but to see one’s work morph into a tangible, recognizable object is extremely satisfying.
Leading STEM activities with the campers has allowed me to experience differences in learning styles and age-related personality traits. Ultimately, teaching these campers is about balance; the younger campers tend to have a lot more enthusiasm for the activities, but find it harder to follow directions for a certain period of time; the opposite is true for the oldest group of teenagers. Regardless of the challenges involved in these activities, I am grateful to get time with the younger groups, because when I am not leading these activities, I am a counselor for the oldest group.
Only into the second week of camp, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with this incredible organization and the amazing kids who partake in the camp. Every day presents excitement, challenges, and dozens of moments that make me laugh. Already, these kids have taught me much more than I have taught them.