Summer camp an EPIC way to learn

EPIC Camp teacher Janet Mason watches as first-graders react to a rain cloud reproduction experiment during camp at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary School on Thursday, June 30, 2016. The camp focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and problem-solving. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 6/30/16

It started with a hypothesis. The rising first-graders in the EPIC summer camp at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary were about to drip food coloring onto billowing clouds of shaving cream suspended in mason jars. Their first task was to guess how many drops it would take for the clouds to “rain.”

The numbers ran the gamut: Three drops, 102, a two followed by a staggering series of zeroes.

“What is a hypothesis?” teacher Janet Mason asked an outspoken boy near the back of the classroom.

“A big guess,” he replied.

“Kiss your brain because you’re so smart,” Mason said.

A simple mantra Mason repeated to her class — “You are all scientists” — captures the idea of the seven-week EPIC summer day camp, which serves 920 students at eight Charleston County school sites. With some research to back them up after three summers of the program, district leaders are hoping EPIC (which stands for Engaging, Purposeful, Innovative, Creative) will instill a love for creative problem-solving while preventing the vexing problem of summer learning loss.

For rising fourth-grader Leila Nadar, EPIC seems to be working. She said she has always loved to read in the summer, but she didn’t have a lot of opportunities to practice her math or science skills while school was out.

“I really like it because you can learn a lot so you don’t forget in the summertime,” Nadar said. “I’ve always had a hard time when I get back from the summer and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I forgot everything,’ but now I won’t forget.”

In some ways, EPIC is a traditional summer day camp. Students at the North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary site take field trips to the roller-skating rink and the community pool. There are snacks, outdoor activities and chances to make new friends from the handful of North Charleston schools that feed into the program.

Some students stay at the school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — a boon for working parents looking for a safe summer environment for their children. The materials for morning EPIC activities come in weekly shipments from Public Consulting Group, a Massachusetts-based organization that focuses its curriculum on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). This part of the day is paid for by $905,000 in federal Title I funding, which is designated for schools with a large number of low-income students.

The second half of the day falls under the purview of Kaleidoscope, a year-round enrichment program that also includes after-school activities and homework help during the school year. Parents pay fees for Kaleidoscope on a sliding scale; the cost for the summer program at North Charleston Creative Arts is $60 a week.

Mason, who works during the year as a guidance counselor at St. James-Santee Elementary, has also been working at EPIC summer camps since they started three summers ago in Charleston County. She said the program pays dividends when the students come back in the fall.

“I think they come back more prepared. It helps to keep them engaged,” Mason said.

There is some research to back such claims. At the end of the summer 2015 camp session, Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute surveyed campers and found that the majority “reported increases in positive attitudes toward science, math, reading and writing as a result of attending camp.”

Program leaders are also big proponents of what they call “21st-century learning skills” — factors like creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication that employers are looking for in potential hires. Students often work in groups, and lessons are built around problem-solving and experiments.

Sattin Young, site coordinator for Kaleidoscope and EPIC at North Charleston Creative Arts, said she has seen dramatic improvements in some of the students’ social skills.

“They’re able to come out of their boxes. You see some kids who came in the first couple of days and they weren’t talking,” Young said. “Now they have that consistency, and they feel safe.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.