Making Science Engaging at Camp

Connecting art and science helps students find STEM classes more engaging and enjoyable

By Elli Korthuis


is a youth development organization that focuses on helping members, ages 5-19 years, grow as individuals through their mastery of their passions, referred to as their spark. The more traditional 4-H program offers clubs in projects such as sewing, presentations, and livestock. However, 4-H reaches a broader audience through its non-traditional programs including camp and in-school instruction.

We attempt to offer a broad range of classes at our 4-H camps including those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). One of the reoccurring themes we see in 4-H camp evaluations is that the science classes are “boring” while the craft classes have remained highly popular. With the growing need for STEM education, we needed to find a way to make these classes more engaging and enjoyable for the youth.

Over 2017, my colleague, Robin Galloway, and I developed a camp class to teach aquatic science, microscope skills, and basic nature terminology. To engage the youth in the STEM themed class, we incorporated art lessons since this was where their interest resided according to past evaluations. It was initially to be taught at the Oregon 4-H Center in Salem for campers in grades 4 – 8 along with their camp counselors. The facility is in a forested region with camp cabins, several buildings for lessons, and a pond.

Drinking the Water

During the class, we started indoors with a discussion of what organisms and materials could be found in the pond. I opened by asking which youth would want to drink the water from the pond. To my surprise, nearly half the class agreed that it would be safe to drink the unfiltered pond water. Several more said they wouldn’t because it was “gross” but didn’t have an explanation for their answer. We talked about the flora and fauna that may leave their traces in the water all the way down to potential microscopic organisms. Terms were explained along the way but there was nearly always at least one youth that could define a scientific term for the class. It was also an opportunity to gauge how in depth their knowledge was of water particles from different sources.

After our discussion, we went as a group to the pond and they could compare their discussion to what they were seeing. We got a bucket of pond water for a water sample and the youth had the chance to identify some of the particulates. Clipboards with water color paper and a pencil were given to each youth and they were asked to draw the macroscopic world they were seeing on the top half of their paper. The drawing time gave us the opportunity to delve into how some of the organisms present could affect us if we drank the water and what other organisms and materials may be present at different sources such as the ocean, a river, or a swimming pool.

The class finished their drawings and we took our supplies and the water sample inside. I put a drop of the water sample on a microscope slide, making sure to include the particulates that had filtered to the bottom of the bucket. We had brought a digital microscope that included a small LCD screen to view the slide. In a larger group setting, this microscope could have been attached to a projector to show a greater audience. With our water sample under the microscope lens, we identified the materials and organisms. One of the highlights was when we found a mosquito larva and were able to use the highest magnification to view the blood platelets flowing through its open circulatory system. It wasn’t an original part of the lesson but an added bonus. Although some youth were disgusted by what they saw, the majority were fascinated and wanted to continue in the discoveries. The class was then asked to draw the microscopic organisms and particulates they had seen on the bottom half of their paper. We wanted to encourage the scientific fascination so after a quick explanation of how to use a microscope, the youth were free to continue searching for other organisms if they wished to during the allotted drawing time. We also discussed how some of the organisms they had seen impact our health and environment.

Although many of the youth were comfortable drawing what they saw, there were a few in each class that didn’t feel confident in their drawing skills. We encouraged them in different ways including saying perfection was not the goal and joking that it could be called abstract instead. The time constraint also helped encourage the youth that weren’t as confident drawing because they understood high quality drawings could not be expected in the given time.

Water color pencils were distributed after the initial drawings were done so the campers could fill in the color. While they were coloring, I poured our water sample into several cups and passed them around with paint brushes. The youth then created the water color painting by brushing the water sample over the water color pencil areas. While painting, they remarked on how the particulates from the pond water changed both the texture and color of their painting. We talked about how the results would be different if they had used another water source and they were overflowing with ideas.

Their views on whether they were willing to drink the pond water were drastically different from when we started the class. Not one camper wanted to drink the water and many were quick to offer their explanations why.


We ended with a quick evaluation to gauge how their opinions about both art and science had changed after taking the class. Some of the highlights from the evaluation include:

  • 71.11% agreed or strongly agreed science is not boring after taking this class.
  • 76.09% agreed or strongly agreed they want to learn more about science as a result of this class.
  • 63.64% agreed or strongly agreed they would do more art in their free time because of this class.

The evaluation method was also an experiment for our program. We were trying to encourage higher levels of participation since regular paper survey evaluations are turned down by a large percentage of attendees normally. Instead, we had larger flip chart papers with each evaluation question stuck to the wall with columns for strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Each youth was given a set of numbered stickers to share their opinion. This made the evaluation more engaging while remaining anonymous and encouraged more honest opinions. It was an extremely successful evaluation method that I will continue to use in the future.

After successfully conducting the class with 4th to 8th grade youth, we decided to offer it at a day camp for youth ages 5-8. The concepts were simplified but the class was still a high level science lesson for youth in this age group. They still discussed what the water sample contained, defined terms such as microscopic and macroscopic, learned how to use a microscope, and exceeded our expectations for their ages. These youth were not formally evaluated but from my individual conversations and the group discussions, I observed that the youth were engaged and excited about the entire class.

Since conducting the classes, this concept has been taught at the American Camp Association (ACA) 2017 Oregon Trail Fall Education Event where camp staff and directors from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho all enthusiastically agreed that they would like to incorporate it in their own classes. It will also be taught at the Western Regional Leaders Forum held in San Diego, CA in March 2018.

I am excited to expand this lesson into several 4-H camp STEM classes in the future. I believe that bridging the gap between art and STEM has proven itself to be a sound method for teaching “boring” science concepts to campers