Innovation, Exploration, and Evaluation: Touchstones for the Newest URJ Camp

On an institutional level, summer camp can model the values we hope to instill in our campers on a personal level. For campers to feel safe, we must use supportive and nurturing language. For campers to challenge themselves, we must provide opportunities, encouragement and confidence. And, if we want our campers to be innovative, we must create a culture in which exploration, curiosity, and honest reflection are valued.

In a recently published article, American Camping Association CEO Peg Smith refers to camp as a “classroom without walls.” According to Smith, camp is a unique experiential learning environment where, unlike a classroom, children can expand not only what they know but also how they think. The pursuit of knowledge and the development of exploratory and problem-solving skills are critical components in shaping the innovators of tomorrow.

In the summer of 2014, the Union for Reform Judaism will incorporate and nurture a love of exploration and innovation into our tradition of powerful summer experiences, as we launch our newest camp—the 6 Points Science & Technology Academy. Our challenge is to build a camp program that delivers on the promise to inspire curiosity and critical thinking. And what better way to model the behaviors we hope to see in our campers than to weave them into our own process of designing this new camp?

Here are some quick ideas for programs at a Jewish science and technology camp:

  • Campers will use nearby wetlands as a water source to model the Dead Sea and its rapidly declining water level. They’ll be challenged by their instructor—an irrigation and water supply expert—to design solutions and build models to test their hypotheses.
  • After dinner one night, campers will participate in an interactive demonstration of the physics of buoyancy and water displacement. Then, in small groups, they will use duct tape and scrap cardboard to build a boat. Campers will test their boats in the pool to see which float and which are the fastest.
  • Shabbat services will go high-tech. PowerPoint slides will replace prayer books, creating a dynamic service that includes different readings each week, as well as stunning visuals that inspire reflection and spirituality. Rather than counselors acting out the weekly Torah parsha, campers involved in a computer animation elective will prepare an animated short to educate and entertain fellow campers.

Will these ideas fly?  We hope so. But more important, we are committed to trying new ideas every day and to challenging ourselves—and our campers—to be creative.  To do so, we also must be committed to evaluating our efforts regularly and using our experiences to shape a better program for the next day. By modeling this behavior, we are hopeful that our campers also will be inspired to try new ideas, challenge themselves to be creative and think outside the box.

And when our new ideas don’t pan out the way we expect?  In science and in camp, failure is not an end, but rather a stepping stone on the path to success. As Albert Einstein—whose first seven proofs of E=mc2 failed—once said, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” In a world in which powerful search engines seemingly put answers at our fingertips, it is especially important that our children understand the value of experimentation, honest self-evaluation, and the process by which we effect change in ourselves and our community. At 6 Points Science & Technology Academy, we hope to do just that.