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Something Old, Something New

Courses Cover Just About Everything

Summer school doesn’t have the best reputation, but the offerings around Capitol Hill aren’t your typical educational courses.

There certainly are opportunities at local colleges and universities to accumulate course credit and work toward a degree, but the city also offers a number of nontraditional classes through the government, nonprofit organizations, museums and specialty businesses. All of the educational outlets offer evening and weekend courses to mesh with the maddening schedules of Washingtonians.

If you can’t possibly carve out five, 10 or 12 weeks to delve into a topic, there are options for those with only a few hours to spare that offer either onetime seminar courses or in-depth lectures that give you a taste of a topic.

Speaking of taste, the Smithsonian Associate Fellows program is offering a

summer-long program focusing on American-style food. So, if the only thing that can get you back into the classroom is the thought of discussing the finer points of barbecue and the role fast food has played in the nation’s culinary tradition, there are classes out there for you, too.

If you’ve ever thought pottery looked like something you’d like to give a spin, or if visiting the National Gallery of Art speaks to the artist within, why not finally learn to sketch, paint or take the perfect black-and-white photograph? Studio Arts and other outlets citywide offer beginning craft classes for a variety prices, skill levels and commitment.

There are also options for the purist who believes summer should be spent outside enjoying the weather and far away from the confines of a classroom. Once the sun starts shining, a host of opportunities to learn and play crop up. Those with an irresistible urge to dig into the dirt and develop a green thumb should check out the Botanic Garden’s horticulture and wildlife courses.

Finally, if traveling overseas isn’t in your budget this year, why not get a jump on next year’s trip by learning the native language of your future destination?

Below are a few of the institutions that offer traditional and nontraditional courses in just about anything you could want to wrap your brain around this summer. For more specific information, be sure to check out the individual Web sites for course offerings.

The Graduate School, USDA

The Graduate School courses through the Department of Agriculture offer much more traditional fare in terms of summer education. It offers both 10-week and five-week courses in the evenings and on weekends to enable people to pursue their learning goals. Enrollment in department programs is open to anyone over age 18.

Each year, the non-degree-granting institution trains more than 150,000 students in everything you would find at a university, but at a drastically discounted price. Courses range in price from $300 to $500 depending on the topic. The courses are staffed with professional scientists, linguists, naturalists, economists and other experts.

The most popular class offered this season is the beginning Arabic class, according to Tony Gutierrez, the Agriculture Department’s director of evening and weekend programs. It’s been so popular that several additional classes have been scheduled to meet the demand. “Our language classes are always popular,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve had such a demand for beginning Arabic with the situation in the Middle East. A lot of people in the area of government feel they may need that skill.”

For more information or to register for classes, go online to

Smithsonian Associate Fellows

Those looking for opportunities on the Mall should check out the wide variety of Smithsonian Associate Fellows courses, ranging from onetime lectures to six- to eight-week courses. The program is the educational outreach of the Smithsonian Institution. Discounts are given to museum members, but membership is not required for enrollment.

“Our courses give people the opportunity to learn more about a topic they’re interested in without taking a full college course,” spokeswoman Christine Cimino said. “For a couple of hundred dollars you can learn in-depth about a topic.”

Courses are taught by local field specialists and university professors.

Forty-plus programs are offered this summer focusing on programs emphasizing Scottish history. Steve Forbes is scheduled to speak on business, but will also address his Scottish roots.

Studio Arts courses, which focus on developing new skills, are popular among beginners and dabblers alike. Japanese flower arranging, black-and-white photography and painting are just a few of the offerings.

“I took beginning drawing and I thought it was geared toward beginners,” Cimino said. “I was able to produce some good sketches, nothing frameable, but good.”

For more information or to register for classes, go online to

First Class

Individuals who thought that Cliffs Notes provided as much information about the classics as actually reading the text will find the single sampling courses offered through First Class to be right up their alley. First Class packs an entire course into three- to five-hour classes that are designed with the schedule of the busy professional in mind.

The independently owned nonprofit program has operated in the Dupont Circle area for 20 years, providing short, no-frills seminars. At $25-$37 each, the courses are very affordable. Small class sizes that never exceed 40 are also a bonus. Students have plenty of access to the professionals leading the seminars.

“Our teachers are on the cutting edge of their professions,” First Class President Debra Leopold said. She added that because the teachers reach out and connect with the students they are able to grasp all the information in a limited time period.

“We offer classes that aren’t offered elsewhere and provide information that is not easily obtained from the Internet or a magazine article,” Leopold said. “We keep our ear to the ground and keep abreast of trends so we can offer people the classes they will be looking for.”

First Class seminars range in topic from launching your own greeting card business to making money on eBay, or learning to play blues and boogie-woogie piano.

“People really seem to want to work with their hands again,” Leopold said. “We’re seeing a lot more interest in classes like herbal soap-making and crochet.”

For more information or to register for classes, go online to

Canoeing Adventures

The canoe trips around the lake you remember from summer camp are nothing like the canoe trips veteran Dave Brown teaches each weekend on the Potomac. Brown instructs groups of six to 14 people in the art of down-river canoeing.

Brown, who is in his 60s, teaches all the classes himself and emphasizes that canoeing is a sport that can be enjoyed for life. He claims that a day of instruction can turn any beginner from the “frown point to the fun point.”

“I try to give my classes a fun day. I pick a beautiful spot, then we learn the basic skills and discuss how we as a team are going to work the river,” Brown said. “When they’re ready we go on an adventure and put the new skills to use.”

Tandem canoes are used for the classes, and Brown recommends signing up with a friend. Classes are taught in plastic canoes with air bags and specially designed hulls for turning. These “Tupperware boats” are more user-friendly than the old aluminum canoes, he said, but tipping is not unavoidable.

Whitewater skills are not intuitive, Brown cautions, and to safely enjoy canoeing people need to learn how to handle themselves. “By using technique and using the energy of the river you have the ability to stop the boat and address upcoming challenges,” Brown said.

“The course gives them the skills they need to explore the beautiful streams we have in the area,” Brown said. “People can get out and see scenery they never knew existed in this area.”

Private courses are also offered for those just starting or wishing to polish up their skills.

For more information or to register, go to

Botanic Garden

It’s not your grandma’s garden club. The Botanic Garden offers a variety of courses that offer an in-depth look at plant life, horticulture and the role of wildlife in the ecological spectrum. While interacting with the plants in the Botanic Garden, students have the chance to really dig into specific gardening topics.

Starting in June, the garden will offer a “Meet the Gardener” series on Fridays in which garden staff will lecture and lead workshops on topics ranging from “Gardening to Attract Wildlife” to “Medicinal Plants” to “Elegant Edible Flowers.”

If your summer plants come store-bought, don’t count yourself out yet. Supervisory Horticulturist Donna Tramutola will teach students the ins and outs of designing pretty floral containers at home. Learn the tips she uses to assemble containers at the garden.

“We want our course to cultivate an interest in plants,” spokeswoman Katie Palm said. “Not just in growing plants, but how they ecologically and economically fit into the global community.”

Course are held in the garden’s Conservatory and Bartholdi Park. Courses are open to the public and range significantly in price depending on the topic and duration of study. Preregistration is required for most classes.

For more information or to register for courses, go online to

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