Summer, sun and… snakes?

Summer, sun and… snakes?

Away from the city heat, Rowan summer program preps Camden middle and high school students for college with lessons in English, science, math, technology, nutrition, even farming with snakes.

For many city students, a lakeside summer experience that involves outdoor study, tree boring, camping, even snake handling, is not exactly on the calendar.

But more than 120 Camden students this summer are not just taking classes that will help them succeed in college, they’re learning lakeside – studying science, math, English and technology.

The middle and high school students, participants in Rowan University’s long-running CHAMP/GEAR UP summer program, split time between the Camden City School District’s Environmental Center in Hammonton and Rowan’s Glassboro campus engaged in lessons that don’t always feel like, well, lessons.

They take overnight camping trips – for many, their first – and practice team-building skills in classrooms, on ropes courses and shooting through the air on zip lines.

“Our goal is to keep students motivated and supported through middle school and high school as they prepare for college,” said Winona Wigfall, director of Rowan’s year-round pre-college programs. “But the summer component really gets kids excited.”

In the shaded cool of the Environmental Center, lessons include trunk boring to determine trees’ age, working with candles to explore the physical and chemical processes in burning wax, and handling snakes as students study organic farming and ecology.

Wigfall said lessons also include SAT prep and a summer reading program – this year students are reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – and they perform skits based on their reading while camping.

The program supports more than 400 Camden students from 6th grade through high school graduation, encouraging them to find a college – private, state or county – that best fits their academic and professional goals.

“The year-round support system is crucial, especially for students who may be the first in their family to go to college,” Wigfall said.

Fun, sun and, oh yeah, snakes!

The six-week summer course, which runs through Aug. 8, has three components: junior (for middle school students), senior (for commuting high school students) and residential (for high school students who stay on Rowan’s Glassboro campus for an early immersion in college life).

In addition to spending three days per week at the Environmental Center (144 Beebetown Road, Hammonton), junior and commuting senior students take part in two overnight camping trips during the summer.

Joe Rock, a science teacher at Pinelands Regional High School in Tuckerton who teaches in the CHAMP program, said while students get to feel, hold, even drape his snakes around themselves in lessons, the reptiles provide much more than shock value.

“My main goal is to teach about nutrition but that leads into a discussion about organic and conventional ways of farming,” said Rock, a CHAMP teacher in his 11th year.

Letting students hold a four-foot long ball python, Rock said some organic farmers use snakes and other animals to control pests.

“I want students to think about what they’re eating, processed versus non-processed foods,” he said. “But holding a snake, and overcoming one’s fear, is a good lesson too.”

Second year counselor Jahnel Tompkins, a 2014 Rowan graduate who started in the CHAMP program in 6th grade and stayed with it throughout high school, believes the outdoor setting of the program would appeal to any student but certainly resonates with kids from Camden.

“Having grown up in Camden I can tell you that city kids really don’t venture out into the woods much,” she said. “But out here the lessons are hands-on and students relate to them. And they want to come back.”


CHAMP/GEAR UP (Creating Higher Aspiration and Motivation Project/Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a joint program funded by Rowan, the Camden City school board, and the federal and state departments of Education. Its goal is to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.