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Academics, adventure sought for area summer camps

| Thursday, June 28, 2007

Kate Meakem's education will not stop this summer.

In July, Meakem, 15, of Sewickley, sets off for a three-week archeology class that will take her deep into the tunnel of an ancient, plant-covered pyramid in Mexico.

Summer camps have come a long way from a week by the lake.

There is an academic program for teens at Oxford in England. Service learning programs send children to Alaska and the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Carnegie Mellon and Penn State universities will host classes for third-graders this summer, and other universities will host classes for students just entering kindergarten.

Academic and adventure programs have become the standard for summer camps, as they expand and host a growing number of children in more programs, advocates said.

"I like academic challenges," said Meakem, a sophomore at Sewickley Academy. "When (my father) suggested that I go to Mexico for three weeks, it's not like I'm going to say, 'No.' "

Summer camp participation is rising. More than 10 million youth will go this year, a 13 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the American Camp Association. Three of four camps added programs during the past year, said Ann Sheets, the association's president.

Universities are one of the biggest players in the growing summer camp market. Of the nation's 300 top selective colleges and universities, an estimated 80 percent host some summer program for precollege students, said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, president of the National Association for Gifted Children. Before 1979, none did.

"Kids are more sophisticated than we were when I was growing up," said Sheets, who went to high school in the 1970s. "I think they have a desire to do more adventurous things. ... They've been exposed to so many more things."

Meakem has been to Europe. She's starting her own business organizing photographs. She's spent parts of her last two summers studying at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster as part of its Center for Talented Youth.

Tuition, room and meals at the Mexico program cost $3,000 for about three weeks, not including travel, text books, field trips and other fees.

"I don't think the summer months should be wasted," said her father, Glen Meakem. "The summer is a great time for experiential learning."

Jeanna Romano's summer plans are a lot less expensive.

Romano, 17, of Moon, is spending four weeks in Bay St. Louis, Miss., helping to restore a park destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She gets about $1,000 in scholarship money, and has to pay travel expenses, which include a trip for four more weeks at Acadia National Park in Maine.

The Student Conservation Association runs the program. The association specializes in recovery work at national parks, but created a new program this year to assist the Gulf Coast. It easily filled its slots, said Nathan Shaffer, the association's high school program coordinator for the Pittsburgh region.

This is Romano's second year in a Student Conservation program. Last year at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky, her typical day included waking at sunrise, walking 2 miles to and from her work site and swinging an axe to clear trails.

"It's better to wake up at 6 in the morning and have some all-organic breakfast and get out in the woods," she said. "At the end, whatever we look at, the big hill where we put in all the rock structures, it's good to know what you did, and that the hiking trail will be good for the next couple years."

Romano's outdoor experience more closely resembles the iconic summer camp. But at some point, a summer in the college dorms -- or at least in the college classrooms -- might become as mainstream as a summer in the woods, said VanTassel-Baska.

At all but one of its 24 campuses, Penn State offers the types of academic programs VanTassel-Baska expects to become more common. Penn State offers robotics, conservation leadership and creative writing, among other options.

Matthew and Aleks Krachanko are 12-year-old twins from Allegheny Township in Westmoreland County. The academic day-camps at the Penn State-New Kensington are a summertime staple for them.

"We're a nerd family," said their mother, Megan Krachanko. "Anything that has to do with science, they just absorb."

The summer courses add a dimension to their education they otherwise would not have, Megan Krachanko said. The boys have taken robotics and rocketry classes, and this year signed up for painting, space and spy gear camp.

"Since there aren't some of those things available, especially in the further suburbs, I'm more and more interested in seeing what kinds of camps are available to let them stretch their minds," she said. "My kids are very interested in learning something knew."

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