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North Hills Monthly

From Faith to Forensic Science: Camps Offer Opportunities for Children to Explore Their Passions

Mar 31, 2016 10:26AM ● By Jennifer Monahan


Summer offers kids the promise of time outdoors and a break from the school-year routine. After the initial euphoria of those first days of summer vacation wears off, though, many families are looking for something to fill the long days of June, July and August. Luckily, a number of area camps offer amazing opportunities for kids to explore particular interests in ways they may not have time for during the rest of the year.

Entering its 13th summer, Pittsburgh Christian Hockey Camp (PCHC) provides a unique blend of faith and sports. Under the umbrella of Hockey Ministries International, PCHC was created to introduce young hockey players to the gospel message.

“It’s a hockey camp, summer camp, and vacation Bible school all in one,” explained co-director Joe Pajer. Campers nine or under attend day camp, while athletes ages 10 through 16 typically sleep at camp for the week.

Younger campers enjoy fishing, canoeing, swimming, kickball and arts and crafts—with a highly popular day of bouncing in inflatables thrown in for good measure. Older kids get to experience paintball, camp Olympics and a range of team sports.

All campers have three hours of ice time daily. Many of the coaches are players and former players from professional leagues, including the NHL. Kids also spend time learning about the Christian faith.

“We’re trying to teach the Bible message: Who is God? Why did he make us? Who is Jesus? Why do we need him?” said Pajer. Daily lessons are taught by Reverend Paul Cooper, senior pastor at All Saints Anglican Church in Cranberry Township. Coaches share their faith journeys with the campers during evening campfires. More information is available at

“Fun, faith, friends—Jumonville,” is the quickest way to sum up the Jumonville experience, according to Jaye Beatty, who has been involved with the camp since 1981. Founded by the United Methodist Church, Jumonville’s primary mission is to help people grow closer to God.

The diversity of offerings includes adventure camps—which might feature rock climbing, rappelling, caving, biking or hiking trips through Ohiopyle—as well as creative and performing arts camps, sports camps and family camps. Jumonville offers Discovery Camp for individuals with physical and mental challenges as well as a creative arts camp for people with autism.

Common across all camps, explained Beatty, is that every activity has some sort of spiritual benefit and that participants are led to process their camp experiences through the lens of faith.

“This is a place where the ‘difficult’ kid can grow and thrive,” said Beatty. “Camp is an immersive experience of body, mind, and spirit. It’s an environment where anyone can flourish.” Find out more at

For kids who love science, Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Gelfand Outreach Summer Program offers a menu of week-long classes geared toward children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Developed by CMU faculty and staff, classes focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts with significant attention to making the activities hands-on and fun for kids, according to Pamela Piskurich, program director for Gelfand Outreach.

Piskurich is excited about the Junkbots camp, where kindergarteners through second graders design a different robot every day while they learn how robots work. The Finch Programming class is new this year for fourth and fifth graders, while an Anatomy and Robotics class aimed at kids in fifth through seventh grade explores the mechanics of movement as kids dissect chicken wings and then design, build and bring to life an anatomical model of an arm.

“Our kids are exposed to state-of-the-art, cutting-edge research,” explained Piskurich, who said the goal is to spark a passion in young learners. More information is available at

One of many exciting options at Phipps Conservatory this summer includes the Phipps to Table camp. During this week-long, half-day experience, kids ages six through 13 plant seeds and explore how food is grown. They consider the entrepreneurial aspects of food as they each make a model of a farm stand and design their own cafés. While some projects happen within age-appropriate groups, campers come together for various activities where older children (Mighty Mentors) serve as mentors to the younger (Budding Botanists) group.

Campers visit Café Phipps and learn about its sustainable features like composting, recycling and healthy food choices as well as sustainable agriculture. They do hands-on cooking and food preparation projects and get healthy recipes to try at home.

“We do so many crafts and interactive activities,” explained Heather Shannon, school and camps manager for Phipps. “We really encourage kids to be creative and have fun while they’re learning.”

Even children as young as two (with an adult) can participate in Phipps’ summer camps. Titles such as We Like Dirt or Wonderful Worms promise the youngest campers an opportunity to make mud pies and learn about how plants grow. More information is online at

With nature camps designed for kids ranging in age from three through rising eighth graders, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy offers all kinds of interesting outdoor experiences. One unique option is Survival Camp, where sixth and seventh graders learn basic wilderness survival skills.

“We want to connect kids to nature, to get them excited and comfortable in the woods,” explained Patty Himes, naturalist educator for the conservancy.

Survival camp focuses on skills like building a shelter, finding food and water, making a fire, whittling and outdoor preparedness. Developing teamwork and kindness among participants are goals that permeate all the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy camps, said Himes. More information is available at

One of the coolest opportunities around for high school students is the Point Park CSI Camp. In addition to material presented through lectures by Point Park University faculty, campers also have the opportunity to do hands-on activities like photographing and documenting crime scenes and participating as witnesses or jurors in a mock trial.

Aspiring forensic scientists can learn about careers in criminal justice as well as intelligence and national security, explained Edward Strimlan, MD, assistant professor and coordinator of the forensic sciences program at the university. The firsthand experience gives students a sense of what such careers might entail.

“Students are given a hair found at a crime scene and have to find the match,” said Strimlan. “They have to identify a crime scene fiber, which means that they have to burn it and then differentiate among the smells—cotton smells different than polyester, for example.”

The format has proven quite popular with participants. “I hear from students and parents all the time; their favorite thing is that the camp is hands-on. The kids literally look under cabinets for evidence and examine blood spatter,” said Strimlan. Details are available at

Whether a child’s particular interest is in learning more about his or her faith, building a robot or playing Bear Grylls lost in the wilderness, local summer camp offerings can give them a chance to pursue their passion.