HAYS — COVID-19 forced the cancellation of all summer camps at Fort Hays State University in 2020. Students K-12 and staff alike were disappointed at the thought of not being able to participate in the instructional science camps hosted by FHSU’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

But David Levering, camps director at Sternberg, and his staff devised a way to still convert and not cancel the Sternberg camps by moving them to an online format.

"A lot of the credit goes to our instructional staff," Levering said. "They were able and willing to make a quick transition to online camps. They were so positive about tackling this challenge."

Switching to an online format not only kept alive the summer camp experience for a seventh consecutive year, but it also gave elementary school children from other parts of the country the chance to participate. While there are normally overnight camp opportunities for high school and middle school students, all the elementary school camps were local day camps. This year, the list of campers included elementary students from coast to coast.

An overwhelmingly positive response resulted in a record 92 students signing up for 113 different sessions of camps for students elementary through high school age. Fifty-one high school students were joined by 33 middle-schoolers and 29 elementary school students in the inaugural online camps. A total of 23 states and three foreign countries were represented.

Levering expects a lot more returnees for the 2021 camps, for which plans are well underway.

"A lot of parents, especially those of elementary school students," he said, "asked us to retain the virtual camps."

After each virtual camp roster was set, Levering and his staff assembled and mailed a kit full of supplies to the students to facilitate participation in their particular camp. Just as in the in-person camps, the virtual camps included a variety of subjects, ranging from classes on discovering dinosaurs at all three age levels to paleontology technical illustration for high school students.

Levering said he knew the staff had put together programs to deliver a quality product, but he was "pleasantly surprised with the depth of the positive feedback from the parents."

Response to surveys sent out after the camps were encouraging for Sternberg camps staff. One parent of an elementary school child from the West Coast noted that the instructors were patient and encouraging and that their child "felt heard and got his many questions answered."

Others at the middle school and high school levels told how they appreciated being able to connect with different professors and scientists from all over the world, those who Sternberg instructors brought on as guest speakers.

"The materials shipped to the students were amazing," shared a parent of a high school student in the Rocks of Fire camp. "We weren’t sure what to expect online, but our son was engaged and enjoyed the camp immensely. He would have loved to have been there in person, but I truly feel this was even an incredible experience for him online."

The online programs will remain a component of the camps from now on, even when the face-to-face camps return. The current plan is to double the total number of virtual camps offered to 30 next summer. Information for registration for the 2021 camps will be available around Christmastime on the Sternberg website at http://sternberg.fhsu.edu/active-learning/camps/.