It’s good to receive confirmation and encouragement from our peers – but to what end? Asking why it is that some social groups are more accepting of skepticism than others is a good step towards making critical thinking effective at addressing problems in the wider society. It should also be a question educators should be asking themselves when they devise skeptical programs and initiatives that are in fledgling stages, with the goal of making them applicable (plus effective and measurable!) to the wider public. Thankfully, skeptics are naturally a questioning community and by encouraging an interest in and critical analysis of such programs, we can promote the progress of quality educational resources.
My naturally questioning nature led me to be greatly interested in a presentation at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, held last month, by Samantha Stein, the Director of Camp Quest UK. Her talk was on “Engaging Children in Science”, where she interrogated the current offerings by UK educational systems – whether teaching to the test and uninspiring resources (such as the dull example of osmosis via a potato) was partly to blame for the drop in students taking on science courses, and how matters could be improved by doing science in engaging contexts.
Since 2008 she has run Camp Quest – “Quest” stands for stands for “Question, Understand, Explore, Search and Test” - and been Camp Director for each UK event. She graduated from York University with a BSc in Psychology and did a Masters in Religion in Contemporary Society at Kings College London.
From the official website:
Camp Quest UK is a residential summer camp that offers children the chance to ponder the bigger questions in life. These days, many children’s educational experience at school is based on achieving results, at the expense of encouraging the child to marvel at the universe, develop an inquisitive nature, a critical eye and a love of learning.
We want our campers to have a fun, challenging and inspiring time at summer camp, in the company of their peers; without the need for an allegiance to a particular tradition or ideology.
Kylie Sturgess: So, how did Camp Quest start? How did you get involved?
Samantha Stein: I read about it in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and I went over to the U.S and volunteered as a student - because what else are you going to do in the summer? I had an amazing week and they said, “Hey, you should set up one in the U.K.” …It's obviously a lot different setting up camps in the U.K; it's actually a lot easier because there’s less regulation. I got a few volunteers together in November 2007. The first camp was in 2009, it took about year and a half in conception. We did it with relatively little money and help.
Kylie: Good for you! How has it gone since then? You're currently writing a book about your experiences, for example?
Samantha: Well, we were in the fortunate position of having about £500 worth of funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation in our first year. I thought, “OK. This is great,” and it helped. Then the press got hold of that and suddenly it was the “Richard Dawkins Indoctrination Camp”!
Kylie: I remember seeing the news report and thinking "Wow!"
Samantha: I knew that they were running the article. It was for the Times and I assumed it would in the Sunday Times in one of the supplements, page 18 or whatever. But then the paper turned up on the doorstep and it's on the front page: “Dawkins sets up kids camp to groom atheists” [Dawkins’ response to the press coverage is there]. Obviously, I learned a lot about how the press works because then suddenly everyone was ringing me! We were basically covered by every national newspaper and most radio stations in the country and even some TV stations. That provided a lot of publicity, a lot of people heard our name. We just expanded from there. It’s the response from the children and the parents that's kept us going and incredibly positive about it. A lot of them are multiple returners and they keep coming back. Some of them have now become camp counselors. It's become a really nice community.
Kylie: That's wonderful. What are some of the things that children can expect to do when they're there?
Samantha: Well, half of the program is just having fun outside, climbing walls, scrambling around in rivers! It really depends on the camp as to what you can specifically expect. Sometimes we have overnight campouts, astronomy, singalongs, that sort of fun stuff. That's the standard camp stuff. Then we develop our own program that we run in the mornings or afternoons, we split up the day. This is usually based around a theme. This year we're doing a theme of humanity. We try and make the theme a topic that they don't really discuss in school, at least not in a interdisciplinary way. One year we had evolution, but we approached it from multiple angles and not just they'd learn in biology, if they learn it at all. We have this theme. Not all of the sessions are usually with a theme. We sometimes have guest speakers in as well. We've had Matt Parker, doing his mathematical magic. We've also had Paolo Viscardi, who works at the Horniman museum in London, who did a session on bones and skulls and how people interpret certain funny looking animals as supernatural animals. The kids really liked that. Then we also do a session, which is an educational philosophy that we didn't invent but we use it. It's called Philosophy for Children. Have you heard of that?
Kylie: Yes - I have several years training in Philosophy for Children in fact; we use it in schools in my state, it’s a part of the high school Philosophy and Ethics course in Western Australia.
Samantha: My colleague Dianna Moylan is a retired schoolteacher. She's trained in Philosophy for Children, enough to run a session. That's one of the things that we're hoping maybe we could get funding for that, is to train up more of our staff to a high level in the Philosophy for Children. That's a brief summary of the program that we run!
More details about Samantha Stein’s presentation “Engaging Children in Science” and other lectures from the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, are available through the World Skeptics website and via their official Facebook page. Interviews with congress presenters and attendees feature at the Token Skeptic Podcast, Episode #122. Camp Quest UK will be running from July 29th July to 4th August in 2012 – Samantha Stein’s forthcoming book is called Atheists, Tents and Unicorns: The Story of Camp Quest UK.
Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast, and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and CSICOP’s Curiouser and Curiouser online column. She holds Masters degrees in gifted and talented education and wrote her thesis on the educational measurement of paranormal beliefs. She is the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012 and presented at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin on pseudoscience in education. In addition, Kylie Sturgess is an award-winning secular activist, a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Panel and writes at The Token Skeptic at FreeThought Blogs.