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The modern-day summer camp is less about roasting marshmallows and hiking the back trails and more about getting the kids blazing early career paths.

Ah, summer camp. Time for s’mores and sleepaways. Potato-sack racing and bug spray. Kayaking and “Kumbayah.”

But wait, what’s this? Forensic science and solar photovoltaics?

Welcome to accredited camping. Times are still tough, but keeping kids occupied during the long, hot summer is still a necessity. If you’re going to spend $300 a week to send Junior to camp, might as well find one that’ll teach him some viable job skills. And, if you’re lucky, maybe even get him to earn a few academic credits between campfires.

That’s the thinking driving more and more parents to enroll their kids in specialty summer camps, says Dr. Chell Roberts, Dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State. As part of the university’s K-12 outreach program, Roberts oversees the college’s summer camp programs, which this year have expanded from what consisted of a handful of offerings last summer in rocket building, robotics, roller coasters and Rube Goldberg to a full curriculum of 16 specialty camps.

At ASU’s Polytechnic and SkySong campuses, campers in grades 6-12 can spend the summer learning about everything from aircraft navigation to movie animation, from playing CSI to coding CSS.

“It’s only speculation, but I think there are parents who see these as good areas to interest their children in that may lead them to prosperous careers,” says Roberts, who sounds nothing at all like Bill Murray’s doofy camp counselor in Meatballs. “Especially in an economic downturn, there are a lot more young students being steered toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) activities, because I think there’s a recognition that there’s some fairly good possibilities of employment and good salaries in these fields.”

Roberts is diplomatic enough to allow that even a summer spent canoeing could lead to a satisfying career path. “Certainly there’s a variety of things people can do in life,” he says.

But the sheer number of educational camps available today — azcentral.com includes 378 on its list of over 1,000 “Ultimate Summer Camps,” more than can be found in sports, arts and crafts, music and religious camps combined — points to a demand for summer activities that’ll earn kids more than just merit certificates in horseshoes and tug of war.

ASU’s Camp Game offers a four-week camp in video-game production where future collegiates can earn three credit hours and apply them toward a major in that field. Gateway Community College’s “Discover Careers” program offers camps in automotive science, health care and communications, also good for three college credits each. And the international iD Tech program “Game Design for iPhone & iPad,” also offered at ASU, gives 10- to 15-year-olds the chance to design mobile apps and the skills to make real money on the App Store — which will probably be needed by parents who shell out $799 for the one-week course.

Of course, there are still traditional camps offered around Arizona, too, and some can argue that a week spent in the great outdoors without cell phones, iPods and Nintendo 3DS’s can prove as character-building as any high-fallutin’ academic-type camp.

“At our camp, you can lay out in the forest and see more stars up in the sky than you will ever see around the Valley,” says Rick Large, who runs the 62-year-old St. Joseph’s Youth Camp about 23 miles south of Flagstaff.

“That beats anything you can get from an astronomy camp held in some school gym in Phoenix!”

Camp Idols

At Rock University, aspiring young rock stars can get the full American Idol treatment in a speedy time-elapsed period, without all the painful eliminations and Randy Jackson’s ingratiating critiques.

“Kids come in for a week, we put ’em in bands, they write an original song, they get to record in a studio, they learn a cover, and then they perform at the end of the week,” says owner and instructor Kirk Taylor, who runs Kirk’s Studio in North Scottsdale, Desert Ridge and a newly opened facility in Mesa.

Kirk’s is one of a number of starmaker-type music camps in the Valley, which also includes the Tempe chapter of Camp Jam, a national rock ‘n roll day camp with 18 locations around the U.S., Rockstar Camp at Ahwatukee’s Music Maker Workshops and, for the more vocally inclined, Scottsdale Glee, a musical-theater camp riding high on the success of FOX-TV’s Glee.

“What sets our camp apart is the fact that this is an experience that they can have ongoing, if they want,” says Taylor, whose summer camps have been popular enough to spin off into progressive weekend sessions offered year-round. One of Rock U’s graduates has gone on to land a role in the national touring company of Rent, and another just released her second CD in Nashville, Taylor says.

For aspiring stars more into drama than music, there are over 100 theater, acting and improv camps in the Valley, including Tempe’s venerable Childsplay summer program. Now in its third decade, Childsplay offers over 50 weekly programs throughout the summer, including 14 that allow kids to stage their own condensed versions of musicals like Annie, Willy Wonka and Hairspray, all in a week’s time.

“We have kids who are discovering their talents, kids who are just trying it out, all the way to kids who know that this is what they want to do,” says coordinator Jaime Fox.

Of course, for every kid who discovers their hidden X-factor at a performing arts camp, there are dozens who make a less heartening, though equally valuable, discovery: they simply ain’t got it.

For those, Taylor has some handy words of consolation. “I tell them, ‘Not everybody’s meant to be a rock star. Somebody has to sit in the audience.’”

Square Pegs

At summer camps of old, the unfortunately uncoordinated kids who failed at sack races and touch football were quickly singled out as the last to be chosen for teams, and, more often than not, mercilessly bullied and pranked.

Today, those kids have their own camps. With programs centering on everything from science and journalism to cake decorating and fashion design, kids not adept at dribbling a basketball can find something else they excel in at camps catered to their specific interests.

Science nerds seem to have gotten the best revenge. In addition to the 16 summer programs offered by ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation, camps centered around the STEM fields abound in the Valley. Peoria’s Challenger Space Center offers a weeklong experience called “Life in a Space Station,” where children in grades 2 to 5 can play with microgravity and learn what it’s like to be an astronaut. Camp Invention in Chandler lets kids have fun with fractals, decode ciphers and make like Thomas Edison in an invention lab.

Mad Science, an international program offered at 10 Valley locations stretching from Glendale to Gilbert, strives to supplement school science curriculums with fun exercises in rocket building, CSI-style chemical analysis and robot engineering.

“We keep the brain power going all summer long,” says Jack Hamlett, who co-runs the Phoenix programs with wife Kathy. “So they’re studying, they’re learning and understanding and they’re doing.” Hamlett says the most popular camp is “Red Hot Robots,” since kids actually get to take home the robots they build. “Then mom and dad and the kids get together and play with the robots at home. So there’s a complete learning experience and also that family interaction.”

Culinary camps are popular for much the same reason: kids learn cooking skills at camp that they can then try out at home, hopefully to the delight of their families. Lately, baking camps inspired by the popularity of cake decorating shows like Cake Boss, such as the Culinary Baking and Pastry Camp offered at Estrella Mountain Community College, have been the rage. Estrella also offers a “Project FUNway” camp for fashionistas age 12-16 interested in becoming the next Tyra Banks.

Whatever floats your kid’s boat, experts say it’s best to let them choose themselves from the wide variety available.

“We had one kid who came back eight weeks in a row to try different camps,” says Hamlett. That’s good for Mad Science, but also good for the parents. “When a kid likes a camp, parents don’t have to figure out a different activity week after week. They get bored so easily!”

Sports and S’Mores

But what about the kids who actually like kayaking and tug of war? Fortunately, there are still a number of sleepaway camps around Arizona that provide the traditional Meatballs experience, as well as day camps in town where competitive sports still rule.

The 14 locations of the Valley YMCA offer sports camps in basketball, volleyball, soccer, baseball and flag football for grades ranging from preschool on up to high school. Boys & Girls Clubs around the city still provide the best deals in town, with a wide variety of traditional camp activities priced at only $50 a week.

For families looking for the full old-fashioned sleepaway experience, however, you can’t beat St. Joseph’s Youth Camp up in the cool pines of the Coconino National Forest. Director Rick Large says one of the first things he tells campers is to surrender their iPods, PlayStation Portables and cell phones — which can be a more traumatic experience for today’s kids than separating them from their parents for the 6-day period.

“If you see kids on cell phones, they’re texting, they’re calling their friends, they’re playing games. That’s not why they’re going to camp,” he says. “They can do that at home. They’re going up there to go horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking, climbing rock walls. These are all the things kids need to be doing to get away from it all.”

Although the camp is non-denominational, it’s staffed by members of the Knights of Columbus Catholic fraternity, and certain Catholic values guide the activities. Days begin with a voluntary morning prayer, and the girls’ and boys’ cabins are kept at a safe distance from each other.

“We say, ‘This is the girls’ side. It’s pink. This is the boys’ side, and it’s blue. For those of you who know your colors, there will be no purple in between!”

Despite some of the grumbling counselors hear from the new kids (“We get kids who come off the bus and they’re toeing the dirt, mumbling, ‘I don’t know why my mom and dad are doing this to me,’” Large admits), many former campers, now adults, end up enlisting their own kids in the experience.

“We get parents dropping off their kids who can still sing the old campfire songs,” Large says. “It’s amazing!”

St. Joseph’s does make one bow to modern technology: upon their return, kids each get a DVD showing the highlights of their all-inclusive 6-day experience — mostly so parents can see what their $500 bought, Large says.

But the real value of camp, he adds, is shown in the behavior of the kids who complete it.

“Camp is there to help kids build their own self image and understand that they can live together and play together with others,” he says. “When you see the camaraderie it builds between kids, that’s the real value.”

Select Summer Camps

ASU Camp Game and other programs
College of Technology and Innovation
(480) 727-1516 or
www.technology.asu.edu

Gateway Community College – Discover Summer Camps
(602) 286-8672 or
www.gatewaycc.edu/summer

iD Tech Camps
(888) 709-8324 or
www.internaldrive.com

Kirk’s Studio for the Performing Arts
(480) 227-0546 or www.kirksstudio.com

Camp Jam
(800) 513-0930 or www.campjam.com

Rockstar Camp at
Music Maker Workshops
(480) 706-1224 or
www.musicmakerworkshops.com

Scottsdale Glee
(480) 204-3975 or www.scottsdaleglee.org

Childsplay Summer Academy 2011
(480) 921-5751 or www.childsplayaz.org

Challenger Space Center
(623) 322-2001 or www.azchallenger.org

Camp Invention
(480) 821-1404 or
www.campinvention.org

Mad Science of Scottsdale
and NE Phoenix
(480) 222-2233 or
www.madscience.org/scottsdalenephoenix

Culinary Baking and
Pastry Camp Project FUNway
Estrella Mountain Community College
(623) 535-2800 or www.estrellamoutain.edu/community-education

Valley of the Sun YMCA- 14 branches
(602) 212-6072 or www.valleyymca.org

Boys & Girls Clubs
(480) 858-2400 or www.clubzona.org

St. Joseph’s Youth Camp
(480) 449-0848 or www.sjycaz.com

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