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My older kids loved science without trying. My youngers...I’m thinking I need to try to inject some fun into the proceedings, while still leaving some room for actual education.

For the young’uns (ages 3–5), the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (619-238-1233) offers a Young Scientists program to “support and enhance exploration, create excitement, and facilitate scientific discoveries.” Sessions consist of four one-hour classes that meet on Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday from 9 to 10 a.m., and cost $75 for Center members and $84 for nonmembers. Subjects include “Making Music,” “Big Blue Ocean,” and “Tinkering Lab,” but right now it’s “Energy Everywhere: Electricity, Light Energy, Mechanical Energy, Heat and Chemical Energy.” “Each week, there are four stations working on a project, and a maximum of ten kids,” says a representative. “For example, one week they’ll work on a light circuit.” (A caregiver must attend as well.)

Anna Gouvalaris, client representative at the computer-science resource ThoughtStem (858-869-9430), notes that her company also holds Saturday classes at Reuben H. Fleet (among other places), from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., for kids ages 8–14. Beginners can work in Scratch, a relatively simple, challenge-based system designed to “teach students how to think like a programmer [$40 for center members, $50 for nonmembers, discounts available].”

LearnToMod code block in action

LearnToMod code block in action

But Gouvalaris is especially fond of ThoughtStem’s proprietary LearnToMod program, available in school settings and also for kids grades 3–7 at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, most Thursdays from February through April, from 5 to 6 p.m. ($170). “It’s a simulator system that looks like Minecraft, which is a video game where players can modify the game as they play. In LearnToMod, there’s a drag-and-drop system for modding. It’s very eye-catching, and with the drag-and-drop, kids don’t have to get bogged down. If you actually look at computer programming, there’s a lot of syntax, and you have to be exactly correct in what you’re doing or else things won’t work. What kid is going to want to do that? Unless you have the one kid who is a hardcore coder, it’s just not possible. Parents would go crazy.”

LearnToMod employs “four different kinds of tasks. Sometimes the code is scrambled, sometimes a piece is missing, sometimes the kids have to solve a puzzle, and sometimes they have to take a quiz. The tasks start off simply. For example, ‘What would be the logical progression if you had one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi?’ Or the kids might watch a video that tells them, ‘Go find in your toolbar how to set up this code,’ and they have to follow instruction. Because a lot of it is learning how to follow instructions.”

Simple tasks give way to more complicated ones. “Eventually, they can obey commands like, ‘Create a flash of lightning such that, three seconds after each flash, there will be three rain drops.’ As they go along on a given task, the computer will tell them their code is 50 percent correct or 75 percent correct. They kind of learn how to fix whatever it is they’re doing wrong.” But if they get hopelessly stuck, “We have our own staff that we’ve trained in the system. They monitor the kids, helping when they need it, but also letting them struggle. The whole system is self-paced, and so intuitive that the kids kind of learn to work at something and move through it. It’s so collaborative when they do it in a group. We’re finding that kids actually go home and code together instead of just playing video games.” See ThoughtStem’s website for more options and information.

More camps are available through Mad Science of San Diego (858-505-4880). Director of sales and marketing Erika Garcia is especially fond of Brixology, available this summer for grades 2–5 at several San Diego County locations (usually rec centers and YMCAs). “Campers spend the week learning about aerospace, mechanical, automotive, structural, and nautical engineering. Through hands-on construction projects using Lego bricks, teams of campers will complete engineering projects of varying difficulty levels. They will learn about aerospace engineering while assembling a space station, explore mechanical engineering while building boats and vehicles, and discover nature’s engineering secrets while investigating bio mimicry.” See the company website for more options and information.

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