National Youth Leadership Forum (Envision Experience and Envision EMI) – Pricey Summer Camps of Questionable Quality?

My son was “nominated” by his 3rd-grade science teacher for what both the teacher and we thought might be a nice opportunity – a week-long summer camp that focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The camp is put on by the “National Youth Leadership Forum” (or NYLF) and was called “Pathways to Stem.” The teacher let us know that they had “nominated” our son – and only our son because of his interest in the natural sciences – and then, a few weeks later, we received this really opulent package of information about the program (see scan below).

When we opened the package, we were simultaneously impressed and disturbed by the contents. There were lots of gold seals and what looked like official language and endorsements.

shiny gold seal
Shiny gold seal!

But then we saw the price for the camp and balked!

summer camp price scan
The price… and a payment plan? Why would a summer camp need a payment plan?

Yep, you’re reading that correctly: $2,195!

For a week-long camp?!?

Our son has been doing summer camps for a long time since both of us work. The most expensive summer camp he has done has cost just over $200 – for a full week (most are around ~$150 per week). Granted, that didn’t include room and board, but the tuition only option for this summer camp was still almost $1,700, which is over 8 times as much as we had ever paid for another camp.

I hate to admit that we actually spent a little time considering this as a possibility for our son as we should have immediately been more skeptical. As we thought about it, we considered that college admissions are competitive and wondered if this might be beneficial. But we both quickly realized that, as college professors, we wouldn’t care if a student had spent a week at some summer camp unless that camp had led them to do original research and publish a paper or create some world-altering invention. That… That would be an impressive camp. But what was being proposed for this camp wasn’t all that compelling (see the sample schedule in the PDF below).

Even so, as busy professionals, we didn’t really have time to look into this right away, so we kind of just sat on it for about two months until I had a free day one weekend to look into a little more. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) is part of a collection of camps and programs run by a for-profit company called Envision, EMI. The link we’d been giving in all of our paperwork (see the scans below) was to, but that redirects straight to the main Envision website: That was a little weird.

As I googled around, I found more and more information. Yelp actually provided some good starting places based on the reviews. From there, I ended up reading this very good (and amazingly balanced yet subtly critical) article in the New York Times. That article notes that there is no empirical evidence that such summer camps do anything for: (1) improving leadership or other skills in young people (they are too short and no one has tested their efficacy), or (2) improve the odds of young people getting into competitive colleges.

The Yelp reviews also pointed me to the Wikipedia article on the company, which has a very helpful section on “criticisms” of Envision, EMI. Not surprisingly, one of the main criticisms is that the company employs slick, high-pressure marketing techniques, like requesting that parents respond within 24 hours to reserve their child’s spot. Why do I have to respond in 24 hours?

card insert that suggests a need for urgency
This included card makes it seem like there is a reason to make a quick decision on this camp. There isn’t.

The other Wikipedia criticisms focus on how the company doesn’t deliver on its promises of an amazing educational experience.

The Yelp reviews had largely convinced me that this wasn’t the opportunity it claimed to be. The New York Times article sealed the deal. The Wikipedia section was just icing on the cake. Our son won’t be attending the National Youth Leadership Forum: Pathways to Stem summer camp. I’d much rather take the $2,195 and buy him a 3D printer (~$1,000 and $1,000 worth of supplies) and let him design and print 3D objects all summer long. That is a much better use of our funds.

Below is a scan of all the materials sent, from the various letters to the teacher, to us, and to our son, along with the promotional and informational materials and even some scans of the envelope (the seal on which is shown above):

NOTE: Throughout this blog post, I have not used the words “scam” or “fraud” or anything like that to describe the company or the camp. That is intentional. Technically, the company is delivering “a camp experience.” That the experience is less impressive than what the company seems to suggest does not mean this is a “scam” or a “fraud.” I have been very careful with my word choices here so as to avoid a lawsuit or libel claims. I think it is safe to say that this company offers summer camps that are WAY, WAY, WAY more expensive than almost every other summer camp we have considered for our son (the one exception is astronaut camp in Birmingham, Alabama, which involves some pretty hands-on training and is still just $1,000). For instance, here is a list of available summer camps (for summer 2017) in our area. None of them come anywhere close to the cost of Envision, EMI’s camps. Again, that does not mean Envision Experience, Envision, EMI, or the National Youth Leadership Forum are a “scam.” I think it would be more accurate to describe what Envision Experience offers as very expensive, possibly under-delivering camp experiences for people who really want their kids to succeed but may not realize that there is no scientific evidence these camp experiences will help their kids succeed.


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Stan Winston toys

I was cleaning out the closet this summer and found some of the toys my uncle Stan sent to each of his nieces and nephews.  I had all of the characters in one set but was short a couple in another set.  Toren saw the toys and really liked them, so I let him open the ones in the incomplete set.  Here he is narrating a story with the toys:

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Florida Railroad Museum

I found a museum not far from our house that also operates a short train ride.  I took Toren one day to check it out.  Here we are exploring the museum (it’s an old sleeper car):

Exploring the other cars:

And enjoying the train ride:


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Going to scare Grandma

Toren decided he wanted to draw a picture for his Grandma after she sent him a Halloween card.  He wanted it to be really scary.  Here he is describing how Grandma will react when she opens the letter and sees the picture:

And here he is drawing:

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new school, new backpack

Toren started a new preschool in August that is very close to our house (I walk to pick him up most days).  He has to bring home a binder every day, along with his lunch and water bottle.  So, we got him a backpack.  It’s awesome!  It’s from REI and has a spot for a water bladder and water bottles.  Plus, it has a whistle built into one of the buckles.  Yep, he’s spoiled.  But he’s excited to go hiking with me!

Here he is sporting his new backpack and lunch bag at his new school
Here he is sporting his new backpack and lunch bag at his new school.  The whistle is the orange part of the buckle.

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how Toren plays Risk

I’m not sure what games of Risk look like in your household (You do play Risk, don’t you?!?), but ours involve some nontraditional pieces:

Toren gets to use whatever toys he has around, like cars, as weapons.
Toren gets to use whatever toys he has around, like cars, as weapons.

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launching Toren

One of Toren’s favorite activities when jumping on the trampoline is for me to launch him really high.  We used to call this “skyrocketing” someone when I was growing up.  The video isn’t great because I was filming it; I’ll try to get better footage in the future:

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I knew this day would come

I think every kid eventually learns a song like this and parents wonder how and why.  Anyway, I overheard Toren saying this in the back of the car and had to capture it on film.  He explains where he heard it and illustrates that he obviously has no idea what he’s saying:

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hiking in Colt Creek State Park

Toren and I did a little hiking a few Sundays back at a new park.  The layout was odd and the maps they had didn’t align with the actually trails as far as I could tell, but we did get to hike around a lake (Toren made it most of the way) and actually saw an alligator drop into the lake and swim across.  Pretty cool!

Here are a couple of clips of Toren hiking.  In the first, he mentions rhinoceroses.  It was actually pretty funny what happened.  We were walking along a 1/4 mile nature trail with informational signs.  After reading one to him, Toren turned to me and said, “I be the next sign says ‘beware of rhinoceroses.'”  So, that’s what I was asking him about in this video:

Here he is hiking by the lake with the alligator in it:

He hiked the longest he has yet, about a mile, then I put him in the backpack and hiked him back to the car.  Here’s our route:

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In addition to our occasional hikes, I decided to start visiting some of the strange roadside attractions in the Tampa area.  Here are a few of the first places we visited.

A local RV dealer decided to use a few old Airstream trailers to create a work of art next to I-4 called Airstream Ranch:

We also happen to have the world’s largest confederate flag in the area, right next to I-75.  It was set up by a semi-white supremacist organization, Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I didn’t go to support it, just to see it:

We drove through Zephyrhills to see this Muffler Man, one of a batch of large statues created in the 1960s and 1970s that has something of a cult following:

At the same auto shop was another statue made out of a muffler:

After our hike we stopped by this weird roadside marker announcing Polk County as the Citrus Capital of the US.  It’s largely derelict now, but still there:

The last roadside oddity we visited was this weird house with strange yard art and sculptures:

There are still another couple dozen oddities in the area, so I’ll probably post more as we continue our adventures.

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