Chicago’s urban summer camps

Two recently launched summer camps aim to transform Chicago into an interactive textbook when the school year ends a few months from now. Designed by professional educators and built on core academic disciplines, they are dedicated to optimizing students’ futures through classroom, studio and hands-on learning.

The foundation of both GEMS World Academy’s CAMP GEMS and the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Summer Camps is an educational philosophy called STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Schools and educational businesses have regarded these disciplines as the keys to elite universities and professional success for nearly two decades.

At the same time, students have regarded summer as the season of not going to school. So the real question is, are these camps any fun?


“We make it fun,” explains GEMS World Academy French teacher Marjorie Blettry. “We are going to take the kids outside, into the park and to the museums. Chicago is a great place to teach.”

Many of GEMS campers will design and fly their own kites, build and launch their own rockets, and take “eco-walks” to learn about the fundamentals of decomposition, among other things. Understanding how wind, fire and dirt fuel these phenomena should be enough to help any kid have fun.

Blettry is one of the main faculty members behind the planning and implementation of CAMP GEMS, which will begin hosting weeklong sessions on June 19. A native of Lyon, France, she arrived at GEMS in 2016. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as a primary teacher at Lycée Français de Chicago, which is frequently referred to as “The French School.” While there, she “was always involved in the summer camps.”

She is confident that CAMP GEMS will be different — and better — than similar programs because it will be guided by the “culture and spirit of GEMS.”

“We start with an inquiry — like ‘why do people travel?’ — and do everything based on that,” she explains. “The students would learn why tourism is important. They might go to a travel agency. I would teach them how to book a hotel in French.”

Since GEMS is an international school where “the kids all learn a language,” an hour of French or Spanish will follow mornings of science within the school itself every day of the week except Wednesday, when the kids will pursue related field studies throughout the city. The curriculum will also devote plenty of time for sports activities on GEMS’ rooftop playground in the afternoons.

GEMS is also an International Baccalaureate school (IB) and, as such, maintains standards set by the Swiss educational foundation of the same name.

“At the end of high school in many European countries, you take this exam with all the subjects: native language, foreign language, history, math and science,” explains Blettry. “If you do not pass that exam, you cannot go to college.”

Although the curriculum at CAMP GEMS does not designate any specific time to the IB, Blettry is certain that the kids won’t mind the effect it may have on their summer. 

“I’m always amazed by their motivation to learn,” she says. “It’s kind of magical.”

Chicago Architecture Foundation Summer Camps

The mission of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Summer Camp is “to inspire kids to discover why design matters,” says Gabrielle Lyon, the Vice President for Education and Experiences who launched the program in 2015.

In many ways, it is a youthful extension of the organization itself. “CAF has been helping people to appreciate the architecture of Chicago for fifty years,” she continues. Besides offering tours, events, programs and exhibitions, the CAF also operates Chicago’s First Lady — the overwhelmingly popular architectural tour boat that cruises up and down the Chicago River.

Lyon is both proud and confident to follow in its wake. “It’s actually the number one thing to do in Chicago,” she boasts. “Unless you’re seven years old, in which case the best thing to do is to take the CAF summer camp.”

The summer camp program consists of four separate weeklong terms, each offering a specific topic to a specific age group, beginning in late June. Campers will not only learn about architecture by meeting with experts and exploring the Loop, but they will also design their own skyscrapers and parks with a collection of tools ranging from Legos and clay to professional industry software.

“Every day we’re doing projects,” explains Lyon. “All the kids work as a team. They really collaborate.”

Before joining CAF in 2014, Lyon spent two decades as a key player in the nation’s educational arena. Recognized for her focus on “ensuring equitable opportunities for children,” she founded Project Exploration, an organization that “changes the face of science from white male and wealthy to women, minorities and the overlooked,” in 1999, and earned a PhD in Education from the University of Chicago in 2010.

“I was brought on to overhaul the way the organization is involved with young people,” she says. “I just love it.”

Each session will contain 16 campers divided into groups of four or eight. At the end of the week, each group will make a presentation in a public show for the parents and administrators. Past shows have featured physical models, PowerPoint presentations and, in one case, a song.

But before getting to that point, the campers will have to “listen to other people’s ideas and act on the one that’s the strongest,” says Lyon.

For the most part, the presentations will be created in CAF’s ArcelorMittal Design Studio, which Lyon describes as “the first interactive design studio in the city.” The bright, flowing space is equipped with clay and art materials for younger architects, Macs and PCs for the older kids and, it seems, everything in between.

Although she considers it a “terrific space for teaching and learning,” the studio is meant to complement the world-class lessons that the campers will receive by exploring the Loop with knowledgeable, career-minded adults.

“We teach kids how to see in new ways,” she says. “They’re going to leave this program looking at buildings with different eyes. The architecture and history of Chicago are the best tools for that.”

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

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