Can “Camp Themes” Help Excite, Engage and Inspire STEM Students?

The first in a series of Blogs considering the use of classic literature to inform a STEM camp curriculum.

In late 2019, STEM for Service was asked by the New Jersey National Guard, Recruiting Command, home of the NJNG “STEAM Team” to develop a curriculum for a seven-day, residential  STEAM Camp for at least thirty high school-aged students from families in the National Guard.  The camp would be held as a component of a larger Summer Camp being sponsored Child and Youth Program (CYP) for  150 middle school- aged students.  The theme for the 2020 Camp was to be Disney!

STEM is shorthand to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  STEAM adds an “A” for the arts to be more inclusive and encourage a wider array of students to consider attending.

CYP has delivered the Summer Camp program for many years and related several key insights.

  • Few campers know their peers, early ice breaking and dividing into small teams is essential.
  • Not everyone is excited to be there, be ready to address varying interest levels.
  • Expose the children to some of what their parents experience while in uniform.
  • Camps are staffed by volunteers, keep it simple –  invoke the 80/20 rule.
  • Camp rules and insurance concerns can constrain the curriculum.

STEM for Service also learned from past STEAM events.

  • Not all military leaders embrace the “arts”
  • Skill levels vary
  • Learning has to be disguised as fun
  • Take smaller bites, stretch complex ideas over multiple hours or sessions.


I recall my first trip to Disney World  and recalled the impact of seeing Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, a model of the one included in the Academy Award winning Disney movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” adapted from the Jules Verne novel.  I quickly concluded this could become a great theme for the STEAM camp.

Off to the library to get the novel and a biography of Jules Verne and an internet search to find out why Verne so interested Walt Disney. The book is filled with technology with explanation and uses and the biography was riveting;  I learned a lot more than I had anticipated.   Fun facts include:

  • Jules Verne was not a scientist by training but a lawyer.  He quit law to become a writer thinking it was more fun and exciting.  His father was not amused.
  • Verne was fascinated by American ingenuity and embrace of technology.  His books feature American characters and scenes from American locations.


  • Electricity and submarines were key technologies featured at the 1867 Paris Exposition and inspired the novel.
  • Verne rightly predicted that electrical motors would make the submarine a fearsome weapon.
  • But only if electricity could be generated and stored aboard.
  • Verne’s novel predicted many other future technologies including Scuba, Tasers, compressed air tanks to maneuver subs, efficient batteries.
  • The novel was originally published as chapters in a bi-weekly magazine; the book includes “cliff hangers “ in many chapters just like modern day television series.
  • Many scientists have been inspired by Verne’s “Extraordinary Journeys,” including scientist that have made dramatic contribution to military science.
    • Igor Sikorsky- inventor of the first helicopter.
    • Simon Lake , designer of the first operational submarine for US Navy.
    • Robert Goddard, rocket scientist, namesake of NASA research facility.
    • Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer, namesake of the Hubble space telescope.
    • Guglielmo Marconi, pioneer in radar and wireless communications.
    • Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space
    • Jacques Cousteau- ocean explorer and inventor of SCUBA equipment

It is clear that Jules Verne and his novel could “excite”  but could it become an effective tool in designing a STEAM curriculum.  That will be discussed in the next blog post.

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