Woodlands Academy launches new summer camp option for girls

  • Woodlands Academy math/science teacher Valerie Rickert, Ph.D., assists a young GrowGirl summer camp participant in analyzing the Ph level of some evidence during a crime scene investigation scenario in the high school's chemistry lab.Woodlands Academy

    Woodlands Academy math/science teacher Valerie Rickert, Ph.D., assists a young GrowGirl summer camp participant in analyzing the Ph level of some evidence during a crime scene investigation scenario in the high school's chemistry lab.Woodlands Academy

Updated 7/5/2022 9:45 AM

Before entering grades 5 and 6 this fall, a motivated group of girls from Lake and Cook counties participated in a unique, new summer day camp experience at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart. The all-girls college-prep high school in Lake Forest hosted its inaugural GrowGirl camp offering a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary approach to exploration, growth and fun.

The first year's session, "Investigating Mysteries," inspired students to combine their interest in storytelling and mysteries with building curiosity about the ways subjects such as math and chemistry are used in forensics. Woodlands Academy English teacher Jennifer Allison Brostrom teamed up with chemistry and math teacher Valerie Rickert, Ph.D., to create a curriculum combining fiction and forensics designed for 5th through 7th graders.


"We are really excited about it as a unique offering that brings together humanities and science," Brostrom said. "The synergy between creative and critical thinking in this program supports deep student engagement while building their confidence as writers and researchers. It's great fun for them to explore the realm of imagination in fiction and then learn to implement some of the lab techniques used by investigators in a very experiential way within the lab."

Brostrom, whose "Gilda Joyce" mystery series is published by Penguin Books for Young Readers under her pen name Jennifer Allison, introduced students to the structure of a mystery and sources of inspiration for creative writers. "The investigator in your mystery does not have to be a professional detective or FBI agent," Brostrom told the students as they worked to develop biographies for their main characters. "But every investigator in a mystery must have a drive to find the truth. And in each scene, you must ask yourself, as a writer, "What does my main character need to learn? What skills will he or she use to find this information?'"

GrowGirl participants then headed to Woodlands' chemistry lab. There they learned about the role of first responders in gathering evidence, the proper techniques for documenting a crime scene, and methods for determining whether a crime has been committed. They performed fingerprint analysis and qualitative chemical analysis to assess an unknown substance collected at a crime scene. "Many of the shows the students watch are misleading when it comes to the actual techniques used at a crime scene," Rickert said. "When they actually experience how each of these steps come together in a real investigation, they also become more aware of the ways math and chemistry are used as crucial tools in the process."

Brostrom believes that combining creative work with scientific investigation supports the "whole child" at an age when they are still discovering their diverse interests. "Innovation in science requires an ability to think creatively and writers and visual artists also need to develop strong critical thinking skills," she adds. "One of the strengths of the faculty at Woodlands is that we work together in such innovative ways to develop highly engaging and experiential learning experiences that combine creativity with analysis."

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This inaugural GrowGirl summer camp also featured mystery-themed games and activities planned by Woodlands Academy incoming juniors Karishma Bhatara and Ally Jenner. Both students are actively involved in the school's arts and STEM programs. Among the campers' favorite activities was an elaborate scavenger hunt. Participants would find pieces of forensic evidence (plastic bones) accompanied by cryptic notes that eventually led to a staged crime scene. "The opportunity to work with the amazing faculty at Woodlands and also contribute some of our own ideas for this camp was a truly enjoyable experience," Bhatara said. "It was rewarding to help younger students with their writing process and in the lab, and the whole thing was really fun."

Woodlands Academy's mystery writing/crime-solving camp culminated with a "publishing party" for the young authors, who created cover art for their final mysteries, and each shared a portion of their stories with the whole group. "The thing I like about the story I wrote is that it is kind of scary, but also really intriguing," camper Catherine Marciano said.

The group then visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where students explored a range of exhibits focused on the intersection of the arts and sciences. "My daughter loves science and creative projects, so this has been a perfect mix for her," commented Deb Woodall, whose daughter attended the program. As Julie Booma, parent of another GrowGirl participant put it, "This camp is a hidden gem."

Planning is already underway for growing GrowGirl next year. The possibilities include offering area girls as many as four different one-week experiences during their summer 2023 vacation.

Woodlands Academy is an independent Catholic day-and-boarding school for young women of all faiths in grades nine through 12. It is part of a worldwide network of 25 schools in the U.S. and Canada and more than 150 schools in 41 countries on six continents.

According to 2022 rankings by Niche, an independent research company, Woodlands Academy was once again the #1 Best All-girls High School in Illinois and the #1 Best Catholic High School in Illinois. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education recognized Woodlands Academy as a National Blue Ribbon School for 2020. This coveted award is based on a school's overall academic performance.

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