Campers practice their skills at the See Blue STEM Camp at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

University of Kentucky See Blue STEM Camp

Trump donated $100,000 for a science camp. What should it look like?

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that President Donald Trump will donate $100,000 from his salary to the agency to support a summer camp for students focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“We want to encourage as many children as possible to explore STEM fields, in the hope that many develop a passion for these fields,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at a 26 July White House press briefing where she accepted the gift.

But the White House and the department released no details about the planned camp, leaving many STEM professionals uncertain about what the Trump administration has in mind. But in interviews with ScienceInsider, they offered DeVos and Trump some unsolicited tips for running a successful camp.

Have a clear target demographic

“You need to understand the demographic you’re serving and their needs,” says Denese Lombardi, executive director of Girls Inc. in Washington, D.C., which runs a summer STEM and Leadership Academy. That could mean focusing just on girls, for instance, or students from a particular geographic area. Camp organizers should know “the area [campers have] grown up in, their age, their previous experiences with STEM, and the experiences they may want from your camp,” Lombardi says.

At the week-long See Blue STEM Camp held on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, co-directors Craig and Margaret Schroeder focus on students who come from demographic groups that are underrepresented in technical fields. “I wanted to provide STEM learning opportunities to underrepresented students who may not otherwise be able to afford similar experiences during the summer,” Craig Schroeder says. The camp aims to have half or more of its participants come from underrepresented groups, such as students of color and women.

Hire staff and recruit mentors who are appropriate role models

“If you’re working with young girls, you want to make sure there are plenty of girls represented” among counselors and mentors, Lombardi says. “If you’re working with populations of color or with girls of different ethnicities, then you make sure there is an effort to bring in instructors who look like the girls attending.”

At Utah State University's App Camp in Logan, smart hiring has meant training high school girls how to lead groups of middle school–aged girls in using App Inventor, a program that helps people build their own computer applications. “Here in northern Utah we have a hard time getting girls to attend STEM camps,” says Jody Clarke-Midura, who directs the program. “We train these high school girls on how to be mentors and run the camp so that they’re just as empowered in STEM as the young girls they’re leading.”

Connect with industry and educational institutions

Good connections with local businesses, school districts, and universities can help a camp recruit students and secure needed resources, including facilities, funding, and trained educators. “It’s not enough to just put out a brochure type of advertisement,” says Margaret Schroeder. Her camp, for example, works with local school districts and “youth service center coordinators to identify students who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to participate in the summer experience.”

Don’t expect $100,000 to go very far

Julie Cunningham, a STEM director at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, says it costs about $60,000 to run the overnight STEM camp, for two groups of 50 students, organized by her team. In Kentucky, the See Blue STEM Camp, which serves 300 students a summer, costs between $50,000 and $60,000, most of which is provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the organizers report.

So Trump’s gift is likely to help STEM educators reach just a limited number of students if organizers start from scratch, they predict. “If you want to make a significant impact, I don’t think $100,000 is going to do it,” Margaret Schroeder says. Another option, she says, might be to use the money to help replicate “successful STEM camps or to study the impact of STEM camps. Then I think you could make the donation work for you.”