When you think of the cutting edge of technology, science and engineering, you usually picture NASA or large science labs at esteemed universities, not a 4-H camp in Thornwood, West Virginia, but that is where the next generation of great minds gather each summer for the National Youth Science Camp.
The camp was founded in 1963 as part of West Virginia’s centennial celebration and continues to be a place for young minds to explore the future of science, mathematics, engineering and technology.
NYSC director John Giroir knows the impact the camp can make. In 1989, he was a delegate from the state of Louisiana and later found himself working for the camp because it changed his life.
“It truly was, for me personally, a program that completely changed the direction of my life,” he said. “You can’t help but fall in love with West Virginia once you’ve been through this program because we do a lot of things to highlight all the positives in the state. I think most campers leave looking at West Virginia as their second home.”
The camp has been groundbreaking in many fields, exposing students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) before the term was coined. It has even had a jump start on the proposed change of STEM to STEAM to include the arts.
“We really – since the inception of the program in 1963 – have had arts as part of what we do here so really we’ve had STEAM if you will, really since the beginning and the kinds of things we’ve been doing were even before that term was coined,” Giroir said. “I don’t know how to check this, but we may be one of the oldest and longest running STEM or STEAM programs in the country.”
While the camp is a step ahead in some ways, Giroir said he is always looking for ways to improve and add to the programs offered each year.
“In terms of new things, I think the only thing that I’ve worked hard to change is, I’ve focused on having more female presenters because the students here at the camp for the last many number of years, we’ve had more female students than males attending and they need to see those strong role models of women in science or women in STEM. I feel very proud that we’ve got that many more female presenters to participate.”
Many presenters and employees at NYSC are former delegates like Giroir who return to be role models for the new delegates.
“We have one of our presenters, Dr. Julie Robinson, who was an alumnus from the camp,” Giroir said. “She is the chief program scientist for the International Space Station. I think that’s one of the strengths of the camp. I can give you plenty of examples of alumni who have done some pretty amazing things in our country or in the world. That’s the hope, that we inspire them to use those talents and give them the motivation to go further than they think they could or would.”
The camp has assisted students for more than 50 years and has been successful because it focuses on a select group of students who are dedicated to being at the top of their selected fields.
“I think it thrives because we’re focusing on a group of students who really have the potential to have an impact, not only on their local or regional area, but literally worldwide,” Giroir said. “I don’t think there are a lot of programs out there that focus on these students and really broaden their perspective and, if you will, kind of puts rocket boosters on them for the future, so that they can see they can accomplish the kinds of things that a typical person wouldn’t even dream of doing.”
Having the camp at Camp Thornwood, or Camp Pocahontas as the staff calls it, has the added bonus of being in the National Radio Quiet Zone, which takes away the distraction of cellphones – from students and adults.
“Absolutely, being in the National Radio Quiet Zone gives us a unique opportunity to really have these students focus on each other and the presenters that are here at camp, and the activities instead of being in front of a screen, as many young people and even adults are,” Giroir said. “It’s nice for the presenters, too, that they can just relax and enjoy the beauty of this area and really enjoy the human interaction that sometimes we get distracted from.”
While the National Science Foundation, which funds the NYSC has purchased land in Canaan Valley to build a new facility, the project is still in the planning phase, so for now, the camp will remain in Pocahontas County.
“Camp Pocahontas is where this magic has happened for over fifty years – for over fifty years of participants, so this is what they think of when they think about science camp,” Giroir said. “Until that [project] is done, we will continue to be here at Camp Pocahontas in Pocahontas County. We love being here. It’s a wonderful part of West Virginia.”
The camp is open to students between the ages of 16 and 18. Two students from each state in the United States, as well as from Washington, D.C., Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago are selected through an application process.
For more information on the National Youth Science Camp, visit nysc.fluidreview.com
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org