In 2015, ACA, with the help of the Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE), created the Eleanor P. Eells Award for Excellence in Research in Practice. This award is designed to honor camp programs that:

  1. Develop and implement or apply an exemplary research or evaluation project
  2. Use research or evaluation findings to improve program practice
  3. Develop model research or an evaluation project that can be adapted or replicated
  4. Share research or evaluation findings with others

The Research in Practice Award nominations are judged on creativity and imaginative planning; relevance to the needs of participants and/or camps; adaptability or potential for replication; cooperative efforts with other organizations, agencies, camps, colleagues, or universities; and the program's ability to meet its stated objectives.

Nominees for the Research in Practice Award are also judged on research/evaluation innovation, rigor, and utilization; adherence to ethical research or evaluation standards; and the camp's use and sharing of the research and/or evaluation findings. Programs or camps must have been in operation for at least two years (planning and development time do not count) and demonstrate adherence to ethical standards for research or evaluation.

CARE selected two recipients of the Research in Practice Award for 2017: Sanborn Western Camps and Roundup River Ranch. Here is a bit of information about the camps and their projects.

Sanborn Western Camps

Sanborn wanted to determine if they were achieving their mission: "to live together in the outdoors, building a sense of self, a sense of community, a sense of the earth, and a sense of wonder through fun and adventure." They used ACA's Youth Outcomes Battery (YOB), parent evaluations, and camper evaluations. Sanborn sought to measure campers' experience and growth, develop new and improve current programming, design more intentional staff training sessions, and demonstrate, through data, that they are doing what they say they are doing. Sanborn has used these data to support and inform program improvement and to demonstrate to stakeholders (i.e., staff, parents, board members, etc.) the efficacy of camp programs and educational strategy.

For the last six summers, Sanborn administered the YOB to around 500 campers near the end of each month-long session as part of a larger camper feedback experience at both camps. The YOB scales were selected to be aligned with their mission:

  • Sense of Self: Perceived Competence, Independence, Responsibility
  • Sense of Community: Camp Connectedness, Friendship Skills, Teamwork
  • Sense of the Earth: Affinity for Nature, Interest in Exploration
  • Sense of Wonder: Family Citizenship, Problem Solving Competence

Even though Sanborn is a nonprofit, independent camp that has a strong alumni base, the organizational leadership believes it is important to demonstrate to board members, parents, and community members the actual value of the camp experience. The data generated with the YOB adds a depth of quantitative information to camper interviews and parent satisfaction surveys.

During the summer, the survey completion experience is framed with the language in the YOB and emphasizes honesty and Sanborn's "culture of feedback," which gives campers the opportunity to make camp better. Surveys are administered in the living units by a variety of senior leadership staff who may or may not have had direct contact with campers during their time at camp. Following the YOB administration and anonymous collection, staff members solicit information about the camp experience from the campers and take copious notes as the campers respond to each question. The details of who said what remain anonymous.

In 2015, Sanborn had their first cycle of repeat measurement in the Sense of Self YOB surveys: Independence, Responsibility, and Perceived Competence. This was also the first year in which there was a very comprehensive set of data from all age groups at both the boys' and girls' camp that included the additional demographics of gender, age, and years at camp.

Results showed that Sanborn is delivering a positive and predictable growth experience in campers' sense of self (as measured by the YOB scales) at each camp, at every age, in each session, whether or not this was their first year or their tenth year at camp. Results also indicated that Sanborn Western Camps is reliably and uniformly delivering on this intention for all campers, and campers' growth is ongoing summer after summer.

One of the most interesting findings from the 2015 surveys was the slight dip in Responsibility scale results between the ninth- and tenth-grade summers. Tenth-grade campers are CITs/junior counselors, and — in theory — take on more responsibility than any other camper in the entire program. Sanborn used this finding to think more deeply about the perspectives and tasks of the CITs/junior counselors and engaged in a reflective process that involved changing the junior counselor curriculum to be more intentional and consistent with junior counselors' descriptions of responsibility, including more explicit recognition of "responsibility in action" and more specific leadership training that addressed the challenge and reward of responsibility.

Ariella Rogge, Sanborn camp director, says, "ACA's Youth Outcomes Battery has provided us with data that demonstrates we are achieving our mission. The data has also helped us find specific focus areas for our program improvement process. Parents, alums, board members, staff, and campers have responded positively to our measurement efforts. They see it as another, objective way of receiving useable feedback which — with intentional program development — continues to make our camp experience the best it can be."

Roundup River Ranch

Roundup River Ranch enriches the lives of children with serious illnesses and their families by offering free, medically supported camp programs that provide unforgettable opportunities to discover joy, friendships, and confidence.

Advances in medical care over the past 25 years have improved life expectancy and quality of life for children with chronic and/or life-threatening illnesses. However, many "normal" childhood activities, such as overnight summer camp, are still not feasible due to required medical care. So disease-specific summer camps (DSSC) allow children with chronic and/or life-threatening illnesses to "just be kids" in a medically safe environment. In addition, studies have shown that DSSC provide a number of psychological and social benefits for children, including positive changes to disease knowledge, health-related quality of life (HRQOL), and social interactions. While the number of studies examining the psychosocial benefits of DSSC has grown over the past 10 years, there remain several unanswered questions.

One of the reasons for these knowledge gaps is the challenge of conducting camp research. Understandably, most camps are hesitant to engage in research during camp for fear of taking away from the children's fun experience. In addition, many studies have found it challenging to conduct longitudinal research with campers due to the logistics of following up with campers and their families during the rest of the year.

Roundup River Ranch embarked on a journey to address some of these unanswered questions using a mixed-methods research approach (quantitative and qualitative data collection). The long-term goals of this study were to help campers maintain the "glow" of camp throughout the year and to help camp planners create programming that will not only be fun, but beneficial for campers once the summer sessions have ended.

The research project was developed through a collaboration between the executive camp director (Sterling Nell Leija), the camp's medical director (Dr. Marita Bledsoe), and a pediatric psychologist (Lisa Meltzer, PhD). All project team members played different roles in collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, and the interpretation of study findings was a shared effort.

Results showed:

  1. Campers reported improved quality of peer relationships after camp.
  2. Campers in sessions five and six reported increased hopefulness, optimism, and goal-directedness after camp.
  3. Campers reported increased positive feelings (happiness, joy, calm) after camp.
  4. Campers reported social acceptance, self-efficacy, emotional support, and positive mood.
  5. Campers reported that they took home from camp peer relationships, self-efficacy, and personal acceptance.

Roundup River Ranch is using the findings for:

  • Camper recruitment — the results from this project clearly show a number of social, developmental, and emotional benefits from attending a disease-specific camp for children with serious illnesses. Because many families who have a child with a serious illness may be reluctant to send their child to overnight camp, the study findings can be used to support recruitment efforts.
  • Staff development and training — it is important for staff to truly understand that while camp is a fun week, for many of these children it is also life changing. Being able to provide staff with training about the benefits of camp, in particular using the campers' own words, is a very powerful tool.
  • Summer programming — the concepts explored during the research are incorporated into the camp's intentional programming models. Activities are designed to support campers' growth in areas of discovered outcomes such as peer relationships, positive outlook, and goal setting.
  • Philanthropy — a camp like Roundup River Ranch would not be able to provide such an amazing experience for youth without generous support from donors. Because there are a number of worthy charities, many donors are asking for outcomes to support their decision to give. The results of this study provide donors with both concrete outcomes in terms of the quantitative data and a broad and colorful picture of the more difficult- to-measure outcomes captured by the qualitative data.

Leija said, "Roundup River Ranch's commitment to research and evaluation provides the camp an opportunity to communicate with donors and constituents with quantifiable and proven statistics measuring the powerful positive effect of the camp experience. Research and evaluation allow us to clearly tell the story of camp in a unique way that supports the recruitment of campers, staff, and volunteers; donor support; and measures of mission success."

We hope this inspires you to support and engage in evaluation and research at your own camps. As both camps showed, it's exciting to find out how you are achieving your mission and to use results to improve practice and campers' experiences. 

Ann Gillard, PhD, has worked in camps for over 20 years, including as a day and resident camp counselor, camp director, researcher, and evaluator. Ann served on ACA's Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE) for six years and contributes to Camping Magazine's social justice series.