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Summer Camps Get Their STEM On

It’s not too late to sign your high schooler up for a STEM program this summer.

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Summer has (un)officially arrived. For many high school students, that means taking a break from the books to sleep in, spend time with friends, and avoid the list of chores left by their parents.

But once the initial excitement of freedom wears off, parents may begin to hear the familiar anthem of unoccupied teens: "I'm bored."

One way to combat your teen's doldrums is summer camp—with a twist.

Colleges, universities, and museums across the country are bucking the camp traditions of campfires and crafts, in favor of robotics, gaming, and mobile app development.

Aimed at exciting young students about the possibilities of science, technology, engineering, and math, STEM summer camps can offer a creative and challenging outlet for your teen, while combating summer brain drain.

Unlike science or math courses your teen may take during the school year, these camps get students out of their desks and into the action, says Eric Darr, provost and executive vice president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, which runs three summer camps for middle school and high school students.

"These are not theoretical camps. These are get-your-hands-dirty camps," Darr says.

At Harrisburg's gaming academy, high school students create a video game from concept to completion and learn 3D modeling and audio production along the way.

Teens attending the school's three-week robotics camp build their own robots using sensors and motors, then program it to move, sense obstacles, and mimic emotion.

[See photos of U.S. News's Best High Schools for STEM.]

The courses also help answer a nagging question for any teen sitting in an algebra or biology class: "When am I ever going to use this?"

"[They] really gain a different perspective and believe the work they're going to put in in their algebra class is worth it," Darr says. "These hopefully provide … some context and some reason and some excitement to stick through what are really hard courses."

If building robots and video games seems a little advanced for your current or soon-to-be high schooler, talk to the faculty member running the program to see if your child is well suited for the program, Darr recommends.

Parents should also consider this: What sounds high-tech to you may actually be second nature to your teen.

That includes things like mobile app development, artificial life forms, and using the programming language Python to create music remixes—all of which are introductory camps available for high school students this summer at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Institute of Computing Education at the College of Computing.

Enrolling your teen in intro-level sessions gives them an opportunity to realize their aptitude in areas they hadn't otherwise considered, says Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at the institute, recalling one former summer camper who went on to study computer science at Georgia Tech after his mother signed him up for camp.

[Learn more about the 2012 Best High Schools for STEM rankings.]

"He didn't even want to come," Ericson says. "That's who we want to reach, kids who don't think they'll be interested."

Even if teens don't go on to major in computer science or other STEM fields, the exposure will help them throughout their lives, she says.

The STEM camps at Harrisburg and Georgia Tech still have space open for the summer, but typically attract teens from within the state. Ericson encourages parents to contact colleges and universities in their community to find out what STEM programs are available for their teens this summer.

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.