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From CSI to Journalism to Mythology, Summer Camps Move Online

The University of Mississippi Office of Pre-College Programs has moved all its summer camps online during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue helping hundreds of younger students discover their passions in areas ranging from journalism to mythology to crime scene investigation.

The University of Mississippi Office of Pre-College Programs is offering all its summer camps online this summer, giving junior high and high school students a chance to learn subjects ranging from robotics to journalism to mythology to crime scene investigation. Adobe Stock photo

The Office of Pre-College Programs, which is part of the Division of Outreach, has revamped all its programs over the last two months for middle school and high school camps. The staff is passionate about continuing their work, and all worked from their porches and living rooms to quickly make the camps a reality, said Wendy Pfrenger, associate director of pre-college programs. 

“We start preparing in September and we host hundreds of K-12 students every year,” Pfrenger said. “So in March, when we realized all those programs might not happen, all those kids might not be reached, it was like someone stole Christmas.

“Even though we didn’t yet know whether face-to-face programming would be canceled, we immediately got to work planning alternative versions of our summer programs.”

Ellen Shelton, director of pre-college programs, said she was impressed with how the staff never hesitated when asked to develop an entirely online offering, and they did so with a conviction to offer them to as many people as possible. This format has great potential, she said. 

“We are looking at this summer as creating a model for future summers so we can continue offering online programs to students who are not able to come to campus, a layering of programs in future years,” Shelton said. “While we cannot create the same face-to-face experience, we can create an incredible online experience that showcases all that UM offers.

“It’s exciting to create something new for students.”

The office remains focused on figuring out what students need and want, what will be engaging for them and how the staff can help them cultivate their interests and skills. The issue was figuring out how to do that effectively and accessibly for all, Pfrenger said.

The staff drew on the experiences of the UM High School, another of its offerings that have been entirely online for the last 10 years. They also sought out best practices from around the country. 

Pfrenger said she’s proud of the variety of the camps and workshops that have been put together for middle and high school students over the summer. Everything from robotics to virtual reality to journalism to mythology is on the menu.

“As long as students have access to broadband and a laptop or tablet, they have what they need to participate,” she said. 

There’s also been an effort to connect students with the technology resources they need.

“We’re still awarding scholarships to try and reach those students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a camp experience this summer,” Pfrenger said. “We do feel like we’re reaching a new population this summer: students who for various reasons can’t attend a traditional camp here on campus. We’re really happy about that.”

In some cases, the office is shipping kits with special supplies to students’ homes.

“For example, our CSI Camp will have students doing some lab work at home, so they need a forensics kit – nothing scary!” Pfrenger said. “We’ve tried to turn the online environment into a strength, so the virtual reality camp will actually be taught in virtual reality; the CSI camp will show students professionals working in their labs, interacting live to answer their questions.”

It’s also easier for faculty to be involved – even those who travel in summer – because they can present to the students remotely. Almost every camp has faculty presenters or, in several cases, is being taught by faculty, so participants have access to the expertise they wouldn’t normally find in their communities. 

Another change to the programming is that Rebel Quest and Ecology Day Camp – programs designed for elementary school students – are not being offered yet. The staff and the teachers didn’t think those two would work in an online format. But the office will roll out Rebel Quest-Home Edition packets on its website in June, so families of younger students will still have something fun and free. 

At its core, the Office of Pre-College Programs will continue its steadfast commitment to the idea that kids need to create with their hands, and they need to move and also go outside, she said.

“Most of the camps are built around a complementary balance between online interactive instruction and independent work is done away from the screen,” Pfrenger said. “Whether they’re doing art in Anime and Manga or they’re building in DIY Ham Radio or writing creatively, they’ll be spending time doing rewarding work away from screens.”

By Michael Newsom, University of Mississippi Communications

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