Three Lessons Learned from Year 2 of ACA's Impact Study

November 6, 2018
Laurie Browne, PhD
Campers and staff dressed in costume

Hello camp evaluators, and welcome to the second of three blog posts updating you on Phase 2 of ACA’s Impact Study. Last week, ACA Graduate Assistant Rob Warner wrote about the recent meeting of the Research Advisory Committee (ReAC), the volunteer group responsible for overseeing the project and determining what we can say and learn about camp based on the data. But before we can share those key messages, the committee needs to fully review each one and weigh it against the data to ensure what we say is robust and accurate. Those messages will be the focus of our next Research 360 blog post.

In the meantime, I want to share with you some things we’ve learned this year, starting with a throwback to what we said we were learning in Year 1. Only a few months into the 5-year project, we were learning a lot about camp research, namely that:

  • Camp people get research;
  • Random sampling is complicated; and
  • Research connects us all into one large and broad notion we’re calling the camp experience.

While each of these areas continues to inspire (and challenge) us, there are other things we are learning as we move deeper into the project. But first, a disclaimer: what I’m sharing below are not the findings per se, nor do they reflect what other people involved in the work are thinking and learning. As the director of research at ACA, I have a unique vantage point. I meet with the research team almost weekly, so I have a deep and real-time perspective on the innerworkings of the study, but I’m also the one most often in front of camp professionals sharing about the project and its findings. My job is to bring research to practice and practice to research, so what I’m learning reflects the space in between research and practice, a space I would very much like to shrink.

It might also be helpful to review what we did this past year. First, we asked directors from about 70 ACA-accredited camps to send a survey to their entire frontline staff — this survey included questions for first year staff asking about their childhood camp experiences, and questions for senior staff asking about the benefits of working at camp and their motivations for returning. We also recruited a sample of nine- and ten-year-old campers and their parents to participate in the multi-year portion of the study (Phase 3). With so much going on it’s not surprising I learned so much. Here’s just a sample:

  1. Camp research happens at camp. We don’t have laboratories or petri dishes, we rely on real camps with real campers and staff to do research, which in turn helps us improve the experiences of these very real campers and staff. But camp is a dynamic place—you know this better than anyone—which means that staff comes up that impacts how and when we collect data. But the important point here, and the real source of my learning, is that camp research relies heavily on camp directors and staff, often during their busiest times of the year. We cannot do research without the involvement of our camps, so we owe a great big thanks to the nearly 70 ACA-accredited camps who helped with this study.
  2. Research feels scary. Exactly for the reasons above — camp research happens at camp, which means that camp research happens over and above the normal fray. For some, research also feels scary because it is intrusive, it involves people from the outside (researchers-scary!) coming in and looking around, asking questions of your campers, staff, and parents. There is a certain amount of vulnerability involved with participating in research, even though research teams must go through an extensive review process to ensure participants’ safety. Even though researchers are most often in a position of power, they should also feel a sense of fear and vulnerability — fear the project won’t work out they way they expected, fear they cause harm in some way.
  3. Research feels exciting! This perhaps goes hand in hand with the previous point. Like a roller coaster, something that is scary is also likely exciting, perhaps even fun. Findings aside (which are exciting, tune in to our next blog to see how), the process of engaging with camp professionals feels exciting simply because we are on this journey together. We are exploring camp and campers and parents and staff in new ways and learning things we did not expect to learn, and it will help researchers and camp professionals alike serve youth and families better—and that is exciting!

Join us in our next blog as we share some of the emerging findings from Phase 2 of ACA’s Impact Study. Want more research? Plan to come to the Camp Research Forum at the 2019 ACA National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Come to any (or all!) of the four presentations and hear from researchers themselves about what they are learning about camp, or attend the poster session and talk to them one-on-one. Most importantly, if you’re in Nashville, plan to attend the Research Awards Recognition and Social — it’s fun! Really!

Photo courtesy of Camp Highlander in North Carolina.

Laurie Browne, PhD, is the director of research at ACA. She specializes in ACA's Youth Outcomes Battery and supporting camps in their research and evaluation efforts. Prior to joining ACA, Laurie was an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management at California State University-Chico.  Laurie received her PhD from the University of Utah, where she studied youth development and research methods.

Thanks to our research partner, Redwoods.

Redwoods

Additional thanks goes to our research supporter, Chaco.