Specialty camps serve a specific population exclusively. That service can be with regard to need or desire. And while the educational camp programs at the US Space & Rocket Center — Space Camp and Aviation Challenge — are not classic examples of specialty camps, they do provide an educational experience that is deliberately designed to cater to the desires of a most unique population. Despite the fact that more than 500,000 trainees (campers) have graduated our programs, we are a niche camp. We serve, exclusively, those young people (and not-so-young people) who are drawn to the adventure and excitement of manned spaceflight and the thrill of aviation and aerospace; they instinctively recognize the benefits of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math . . . STEM education.

In 2012, Space Camp will celebrate its thirtieth birthday while its younger sister, Aviation Challenge, is only in its twenty-second year. From the beginning, our mission for both has been to provide a one-of-a-kind educational experience built on STEM education concepts. The “vehicles” we use to deliver that experience are those that have fueled the imaginations and dreams of young people for decades . . . rockets, robots, and airplanes!

What we have found, over the last thirty years, is that our offerings — as specialty camps — magnify the most significant natural benefits of the traditional camp experience. The bond of friendship between kindred spirits is intensified; the natural order is turned on its head as the most unlikely of young people shine, thrive, and grow as leaders; and previously unrec¬ognized individual aptitudes and abilities are realized as dreams of what can be are born. In short, our educational programs, under the guise of specialty camps, are truly camp . . . MAGNIFIED!

Benefit #1 — Birds of a Feather

Our camps bring together a diverse popu¬lation of young people as peers with very intense interests in space and aviation. And though there are most certainly those that attend simply because they want to fly the Space Shuttle or an F-18, in the end, even the most casual camper is infected by the contagious spirit of the faithful.

With graduates from fifty-six countries and every state in the US, our trainees come from every imaginable background but share a fascination for science, math, engineering, and aerospace that borders on obsession. In their real lives, they may be jocks, cheerleaders, bookworms, or wallflowers. At home, they may be considered “Preps,” “Punks,” “Goths,” or “Emos.” But, as so beautifully articulated by one of our international trainees, “at Space Camp, labels are shed and all are happily, blissfully, safely . . . GEEKS!” Stated in a more politically correct way, Space Camp, like other specialty camps, allows all to freely, openly, and unabashedly dive into what they are interested in with glee and near-reckless abandon — at Space Camp, it’s engineering, physics, applied math, and science. They share their love for these subjects and relish the mutual appreciation for the opportunities that await them having put in place the building blocks of a STEM foundation. No matter their home persona,
no matter their point of origin . . . here, they indulge their passion for science and math, together, and recognize each other as birds of a feather. Their personal aspirations are MAGNIFIED before their eyes.

Benefit #2 — Natural Order Turned Upside-Down!

All of life is ordered in a hierarchy based on social dominance. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in a setting populated by young people. Any professional whose trade is our youth understands the challenge of managing a world whose inhabitants are beginning to stretch and grow, reaching for autonomy and self-awareness. Much of that testing and trying is in an effort to understand or to establish one’s place in a very competitive and dynamic environment. In everyday settings, as well as traditional camp and school settings, that natural order is based on social comparisons that often include appearance, physical strength, gender, and even ethnicity. However, traditional camps have long endeavored to engender inclusion and tolerance while encouraging personal growth, teamwork, and individual leadership.

All specialty camps have the advantage of promoting these character-building values in an environment that turns the natural order on its head in a most routine — even organic — manner. For example, our camp programs, built on STEM education, provide an atmosphere where intellectualism and slavish devotion to academic pursuit can make the “nerd” the most desirable teammate. Additionally, our programs create an environment where even the most socially adept of the group feels safe exposing their “inner-nerd” and naturally allows for inclusion and appreciation well beyond that of most traditional youth settings. It expands tolerance to acceptance and so elevates the most unlikely of leaders.

Personal growth and leadership development rank among the most highly sought-after outcomes of any camp experience. Camp settings, in general, are uniquely suited to provide an opportunity for character development as children leave the familiarity of home and stretch the apron strings of family. Imagine a specialty camp where normal social dominance roles are nearly irrelevant. Imagine the benefit of a specialty camp where young people, not accustomed to being the “chief,” are suddenly thrust into positions of leadership. Imagine the benefit gained when a young person, not accustomed to followership so critical to teamwork, suddenly finds themselves happily filling a support role.

Both of our camps are scenario-based and mission-specific. Each team must work together to finish the week and say with confidence, “Mission accomplished!” The young people that participate in these programs learn to appreciate, rely on, and utilize the individual strengths of their teammates and themselves to the benefit of the team and the successful completion of the mission. In effect, these scenarios forge unique teams often having nontraditional and uncommon hierarchies. Such is the case with specialty camp experiences — with a focus on a common goal for success, the “natural order” is not only fought, it is turned upside down. The inherent and most desirable outcomes of the camp experience — i.e. personal growth, leadership development, and teamwork — are MAGNIFIED exponentially!

Benefit #3 — Dreams of What Can Be

Although we state — and can prove — that Space Camp and Aviation Challenge are for campers ages nine to ninety-nine, most of our trainees are between the ages of ten and sixteen. What a fantastic and frightening time of life! Psychologists, educators, and anyone having the privilege of working with adolescents and teens knows that this is a time of explosive growth and intense introspection. It is a time for young people when everything and everyone is used as a measuring stick or benchmark for comparison. Efforts to differentiate one’s self often result in mere imitation and consequently a group identity that is difficult to escape. In fact, at a time when most would articulate a powerful urge to be unique, true individuality is not only undervalued but increasingly more difficult to attain.

We have found that one of the benefits of being a specialty camp is the ability to offer programs through which young people can explore or pursue unique interests and develop individual strengths. Many young people attend our programs knowing EXACTLY what it is they want to do when they “grow up.” They understand precisely what it is that they do well and know how to turn what might be viewed as an avocation into a vocation. However, it is a far more common occurrence to have a child attend our camps simply to indulge a passion, never knowing that the passion has been fueled by their own natural strengths, aptitudes, and abilities.

Week after week, we see young people begin to realize what can be. They begin to understand their own unique capabilities and capacity. They begin to dream big dreams of what can be because of who they are and what they can do. Suddenly, what is unique about them, that special interest and passion that makes them an individual, is recognized as capacity . . . and as opportunity. Mathematics and science become more than merely academic exercises. They become tools . . . means to an end . . . avenues to great beginnings.

Surely the notion that a specialty camp could produce such a thing would appear to be more than a little self-serving, perhaps even arrogant. If there were no evidence to support such a claim, one certainly would not make it. While it is a fact that no specialty camp could create in a week full-fledged scientists, artists, athletes, or innovators, the necessary seeds for that produce can certainly be planted and nurtured. In my opinion, the best specialty camps find it is not so important to teach but to instill in young people a desire to learn.

With more than a half million graduates, we have seen this change manifested time and time again during their one-week at our camps. Our significant alumni base regularly lists our specialty programs as a turning point for them in their educational endeavors and professional pursuits. As a specialty camp, we are able to place an intense focus on a particular subject. Through the excitement and focus on the subject, we are able to provide a haven for those that are aware of their predilections and lure the unsuspecting into a whole new world of possibility. Young people begin to dream big dreams and understand how to make those dreams come true. Indeed, specialty camps are camp . . . MAGNIFIED!

Benefit #4 — It’s Not ALL about the Camper!

Although this article is written from the perspective of the benefit to the camper, there can be no doubt that the same benefits are realized by the young people that serve as mentors and role models to the camper . . . the camp counselors.

As educationally-based specialty camps, Space Camp and Aviation Challenge require a dedicated and uniquely qualified staff of Crew Trainers (camp counselors). We recruit the best and brightest from universities across the country in search of those with an educational background and passion tailored to our specialty — science, technology, engineering, and math. In addition, we look for those with experience in or love for aerospace, aviation, and/or education. Regardless of background or education, they have one common desire — to make a difference in the lives of young people. All specialty camps offer young adults the opportunity to do that while sharing their genuine love for a certain subject. At Space Camp and Aviation Challenge, that subject is applied science and math. As is the case with campers, the counselors also get what any camp counselor seeks in their work. It is, however, amplified.

No doubt, every camp director takes very seriously their responsibility to grow the dedicated young adults that staff their camp. Those of us in that role are privileged to be in a position where we are constantly assessing the potential of young men and women poised at the point of beginning of their professional careers. It is most rewarding to know that the everyday duties of a camp counselor, as well as the camaraderie of likeminded peers, offers the mentors the same benefits as the mentees. Specialty camp counselors experience camp . . . MAGNIFIED!

Finally . . .

Many parents know the benefits of children going to camp. They understand that the independence inherent in the experience provides children with an opportunity to develop those skills necessary to adulthood and life. Self-confidence is tested and increased; new, like-minded friends are made and old friendships confirmed; the waters of social situations are mapped and navigated; otherworldly role models are seen and emulated. The benefits of the traditional camp experience are inarguable and priceless.The primary benefit of specialty camps is that the natural outcomes of traditional camp occur . . . at warp speed. As specialty camps, we are able to provide an intense academic focus combined with a scenario-based, mission-specific objective that demands teamwork. This unique approach allows for amplification of the traditional camp experience. Not only are new friendships made, they are made stronger by the shared passions and interests that first attracted the participants. True individuality — based on natural strengths and abili¬ties — is valued and utilized as labels are shed and facades fall away in the interest of teamwork and goal accomplishment. And, finally, dreams of what can be are realized as young people recognize their true capacity through doing well those things they love.

As a specialty camp, it is our opinion that the overarching benefit thereof, is camp . . . MAGNIFIED!

Specialty Camp: Benefits at a Glance

Among the many benefits of the camp experience, specialty camp uniquely:

  • Fosters friendships among a diverse population of young people with very intense, common interests.
  • Promotes character-building values and social skills in an environment that supports natural ability, not popularity.
  • Allows campers and counselors alike to develop skills and passions, and instills in both a desire to learn more about their specific interests that could translate to job and educational opportunities in the future.

Marcia Lindstrom has been the Director of Aerospace Operations at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) for seven years. Learn more about USSRC, Space Camp, and Aviation Challenge at www.ussrc.com.

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.