Career Classroom: Summer camps help students sample careers, plan for future

Across the state, middle-schoolers opted for summer camps that introduced them to potential careers through immersive, hands-on experiences. They made the most of summer, learning to read X-rays, monitor the vital signs of both humans and small animals, change a tire, use welding equipment and engage in high-level experimentation with genetics and our natural surroundings, among other accomplishments.

Organized by several county vocational-technical schools, these camps engage students early in career exploration and expose them to high school programs that can jump-start their college and career journeys. 

Camper and guardian feedback indicates schools have successfully done both.

One participant in Hunterdon County Vocational School District’s EXCITE camp enjoyed the Studio & Digital Arts program — one of nine weeklong career-focused camps offered in July — because it covered “all the possibilities for jobs that involve art.” 

Another EXCITE participant in the “Pit” program enjoyed the district’s customized automotive classroom: “My favorite thing was everything. It was like working in a real mechanic’s shop.”

A parent of an EXCITE camper in the Animal Science program noted that the experience already launched her daughter further down the path of becoming a veterinarian: “After each day of camp, she applied what she learned to her own animals … complete with chicken medical exams and a new diet for our cats!”

Morris County Vocational School District had high demand for its first-ever week of summer programming, which attracted nearly 300 middle-schoolers spread across 15 career clusters.

Kerry Eberhardt, director of programs for MCVSD, said the week demonstrated tremendous value to campers in terms of career exposure and awareness of the high school opportunities available at their county vocational-technical school. On the final day, families were welcomed into the school’s shops and labs to see — and taste — what students learned.

Computer science in the information technology program.

“Let’s Get Cooking” campers made homemade pasta, truffles and crepes for guests to enjoy; “Broadway Bound” campers put on a short performance; “Motor Mania” campers showed off model engines they built; and “Bacteria Bioart” students explained how they created artwork through genetic engineering.

“We knew stakes were high because we had one shot to make a good first impression on parents and guardians. We did that through both the students’ projects and our impressive learning spaces,” Eberhardt said. 

She noted guests stopped her to ask if the high school was free and if it was open to any high school student in the county. She was happy to provide the answer to both: “Yes!”

The district also made a strong impression on the students, whose genuine engagement led to an exceptional showcase. Eberhardt noted the “Forensics Investigations” campers felt so confident in fingerprinting knowledge that they put a local law enforcement officer in the “hot seat” to test him on the process.

“The camp helped validate the career and technical education experience,” Eberhardt said. “We aimed to have students think of education as something they have ownership over and something that relates to their future.”

“That mindset is important for effective workforce development programs,” said Michael Dicken, superintendent of Gloucester County Institute of Technology and president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. “These camps help students realize how to move forward on their educational journeys with purpose. They learn steps to continue exploring career opportunities and how to best prepare to seize those opportunities.”

Current county vocational-technical students and school alumni also helped reinforce the message about the value of career and technical education at their respective schools’ summer camps. Many current students served as camp counselors. At Ocean County Vocational Technical School, the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science Summer STEM experience also incorporated successful alumni as instructors and guest speakers.

The one-week MATES camp, which ran four times this summer, held campers’ interest with fieldwork across Ocean County. Campers kayaked from Tuckerton Seaport to examine different habitats. They visited the county parks to explore the local environment and study climate change. They collected and identified organisms at the Long Beach Township Field Station.

Students enrolled in the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science Summer STEM experience examine shells along Ocean County’s beaches. ­(Ocean County Vocational Technical School)

“Our camp is a reflection of our four-year academic program, where students apply STEM skills to study their surroundings,” said John Wnek, supervisor of research and science at MATES. “We often talk about environmental issues on a global scale, but we want students to realize we are part of the globe. We are connected. They can impact change by taking on research and careers at our local level. And they can start now.”

Although most county vocational-technical school summer camps targeted middle- and rising high school students, the Morris County district also offered an additional summer program for older students, ages 16-21. This camp also focused on career exploration, but with the goal of helping enrollees quickly determine their proclivity for a high-demand trade. Participants could choose to engage for one or more weeks, with a focus each week on one of the following trades: electrical, plumbing/HVAC, welding and automotive.

Students spent mornings in the classroom, followed by hands-on training. Damaris Medina, manager of continuing education for MCVSD, also reviewed MCVSD’s certificated programs and answered questions to help students plan their next steps. 

“We opened this up to students at the end of their high school careers as well as young adults to give those uncertain about the future an opportunity to test out career and training options,” Medina said. “I know as someone who changed majors in college how important it is to have opportunities like this before committing time and money moving toward a future that may not be fulfilling or a good fit.”

Conversation Starter

The 21 New Jersey county vocational-technical school districts offer career-based instruction in customized classrooms all year long. To ensure programming stays aligned with the needs of employers, districts rely on business partners to lend their expertise and provide work-based learning opportunities. Interested employers should visit to get involved.