In its 52nd year, the National Youth Science Camp continues to inspire emerging high school seniors as they prepare to enter college.
Delegates from the 50 states, District of Columbia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago are invited to the 4-H Camp at Thornwood each summer for three-and-a-half weeks of science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities and lectures.
While there has been a recent push for more STEM related education nationwide, NYSC director John Giroir believes the camp has always been focused on the four components.
“That’s the funny thing – I think I could say with high confidence that we may be the oldest and longest running STEM education program in the country and possibly in the world,” Giroir said. “All those aspects were being addressed in the very first camp in 1963, when the camp was created as part of the Centennial Celebration of the state of West Virginia.
“We were doing STEM before it was even coined a term,” he continued. “Before the term STEM came out, it originally was called METS. So, it’s the same letters, but someone figured out, ‘hey, STEM is a lot easier to say than METS and people may think you’re talking about a baseball team instead.’”
The camp continues to improve and update activities and lectures in order to stay in touch with mainstream and upcoming studies in the fields of science, math, technology and engineering.
“We’ve always been doing it, but we work very hard each year to try to get additional presenters on whatever the cutting edge thing is,” Giroir said. “Whether we’ve had a presenter who is right in the middle of the newest virtual reality and augmented reality equipment or someone who is involved in some other aspect of science that’s going on, those are the kinds of folks we try to bring here to the program.”
For the delegates, the lectures and activities can run the gambit of extremely interesting to over their heads, but they take it all in stride and grow from the experience.
“They just bring up these topics you’ve never heard of before in your life and so it’s really cool to see a variety,” delegate Olivia Adams, of Montana, said. “Even if the lecture is really dull for you, there’s always someone who really, really enjoys it. Even if I’m not a huge fan of that lecture and don’t understand it, there’s some kind of lesson I can take from it somehow.”
Delegate Noah Bastola, of Nebraska, agreed and said the instructors don’t expect every student to fully understand the lecture, but they do expect them to explore the possibility of studying the subject matter.
“It’s not really an expectation for the delegates to even kind of vaguely understand it, but it’s more like exploratory,” he said. “Just the fact that there are these kinds of problems out there in the world and we might be the people interested in solving them.”
Lectures and activities include exploring the subjects of computer science, physics, biology, architecture, math, robotics, virtual reality and more.
Although delegates enter the camp knowing they are good at science or good at math, they are giving an opportunity to explore a more in-depth look at those subjects and find particular areas they definitely want to study – or definitely want to avoid.
“I think I’m still deciding what I want to study, but at least this way I know what I don’t want to do,” delegate Krithika Suresh, of Texas said. “The math lectures were very hard to understand and I find myself, no matter how hard I try, saying ‘there’s no way.’ I don’t think I have the mind for it. I’m more interested in the science lectures and I know at least that’s the path I’m going to go, but I still don’t know specifically what I want to do. At least this is a lot of exposure to what I could possibly do.”
For Adams, the visit to the camp has solidified her goal to study science in college.
“I had an interest in science and I enjoyed it, and I was good at some parts of it, but then I guess after coming here and listening to all the different lectures and talking to the staff members, too, it has solidified science in my life a lot more and it definitely makes me a lot more motivated to just go for it,” she said.
Being the best of the best from around the nation and multiple South American countries, the delegates have realized they aren’t alone in their love of STEM education.
“When you’re back home, you seem to be at the top of your class or whatever – you seem like the big fish in the small pond, but when you come here, you realize that ‘wow, not only am I not talented, but I’m kind of stupid compared to everyone else,’” Bastola said, laughing. “The thing is, everyone at camp feels the exact same way. They look around and are like, ‘there’s so much talent and so much knowledge here and I feel insignificant.’ In a way, I feel like it sort of gives you freedom to do what you really want to do.”
Although she attended a high school geared specifically toward math and sciences, Texas Academy of Math and Science, Suresh said even she noticed a bigger love for STEM at camp.
“Everyone here loves math and science,” she said. “They’re passionate about it. They want to do so much. They all have plans, and they’re really smart. At my school, it was a lot of you go to your classes, you make the best grades – you just want to get into the best schools, but there wasn’t so much passion as much as here. People actually care here.”
While the delegates were selected for the science camp because of their high scores and interests in the STEM field, it doesn’t mean they are scholars in every subject that falls into the field. They learned quickly as they got to know each other where each other’s strengths lie.
“I met this one friend who is amazing at math,” Adams said. “He was talking about his project and what he wants to do, and the classes he’s taken. My head was just spinning. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. But, then people would ask me about my science project and I would talk about it and they felt the same way about me, so it was kind of cool.
“Everyone is really talented at some sort of field which is cool,” she continued. “Everyone has this respect for you because of it and so the guy who was talking about math, I have a lot of respect for him. He almost has a minor in math and he’s not even in college – it’s crazy.”
The delegates were prepared for the STEM part of camp, but one thing they weren’t completely prepared for was the culture shock of coming to Pocahontas County.
“It’s a lot different,” Suresh said.
“I didn’t even know a place like this existed in America,” Bastola said, laughing.
One thing they adapted to well was the no cell phone rule, a feat many teenagers find difficult.
“I was worried about it, but I don’t mind not having any cell service,” Adams said. “It’s cool because it forces you to interact with other amazing people, and so you make many amazing friends because you’re not distracted by anything else.”
Suresh agreed, but said she would prefer to be able to Google anything at a moment’s notice.
“The only thing I miss is not being able to look up stuff that you don’t know,” she said.
Unlike the girls, Bastola was a little less prepared, due in large part to procrastination.
“These two seem a little more responsible,” he said of the girls. “For me, I didn’t actually realize that I wouldn’t have cell service until three days before because that’s when I actually sat down and went through all of my papers.”
Despite the disconnect from friends back home, the delegates still managed to have fun, in large part due to the hijinks of the instructors, most of whom are former delegates.
On the days where the calendar was marked “Out of Camp Experience,” the delegates were clueless as to what was going on and the instructors made sure to keep them guessing.
One OCE day was a trip to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
“It was a total surprise, we had no idea,” Adams said.
“The description was, ‘walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong,’ so some of us were expecting we’d get selfies with Neil Armstrong,” Bastola added.
The instructors would give delegates hints as to where they were going by telling them how to dress.
“During the announcements every morning, they say how to dress,” Adams explained. “They said wear your nicest space suit and things like that so they were kind of hinging at what we were doing, but we still really didn’t know.”
Despite the cryptic explanation, the delegates enjoyed their visit to the NRAO and were in awe of the telescopes and the science done at the observatory.
“It blows your mind that anyone could come up with that,” Adams said of the Green Bank Telescope.
“It also went over my head, the science in that,” Suresh said. “The telescopes are amazing. I can’t believe anyone could design that. I’d be scared to even attempt to design something like that and try to make it be built.”
Another special day included hints of the presidential nature, leading the delegates to believe either President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the camp.
“They taped off the lower field and they drew a helicopter [landing] there,” Bastola said.
“It was an ongoing joke that Obama was coming or Joe Biden would be coming because everything was just so clean. We had to dress our nicest, and they were playing president music just to mess with us,” Adams added.
The surprise turned out to be a special evening of music, good food and a talent show put on by the instructors for the delegates.
Along with studying, lectures and STEM related activities, the delegates are also given time to discover the outdoors and scenic beauty of Pocahontas County.
“Part of the way the program was originally designed and continues today is there is a strong outdoor component to it because these students are already here because they’ve achieved great things in the STEM fields, so our focus is the broaden their perspective on what’s available in science, but they’re young people and they need to have opportunities to challenge them, and the outdoors is a great way to challenge them,” Giroir said. “Many of them have not experienced the outdoors like mountain biking, kayaking, caving, or climbing, or even backpacking, so we take advantage of the natural beauty and features of West Virginia.
“That’s another part of the camp – try to encourage them to try new things and to face those challenges.”
For more information on the National Youth Science Camp, visit www.nysc.org