Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The National Youth Science Camp

This month, the National Youth Science Camp (NYSC) took place for the fifty-seventh time. The camp is a remarkable institution that, in my view, remains too poorly known and too little appreciated. I attended in 1977, and my blogging about it more than 40 years later should give you some idea of the regard in which I hold it.

The Road to NYSC

My involvement with the camp began in 1976 with a remark by Dorothy Cunningham, a senior at my high school. She told me she'd been chosen as one of the top two graduating science students in the state and that as a result, she'd be attending a science camp in West Virginia all expenses paid. At least that's what I think she told me. We're going back over four decades here, and I didn't take notes. The gist of what I'm telling you is correct. The details may not be.

One point I know I got right was the all expenses paid part. That's not something I'd forget. At 17, my reaction was "Free vacation? Sign me up!" I suspect I was also thinking, "If she can do it, I can, too!" Ah, the brash ego of youth. Dorothy graduated number one in her class. I was a good student, but when I finished high school a year later, it wasn't me at the tip of the academic iceberg.

Fortunately, I didn't know that, and even had I, the brash ego of youth would probably have disregarded it. (Sometimes ego works in your favor.) I let my biology teacher know that I wanted to be considered for the following summer's NYSC, and he helped me do whatever had to be done to apply.

There was paperwork. I don't remember any, but there must have been. An application form, if nothing else. During my senior year in high school, paperwork was pretty much a leitmotif. Paperwork for college applications. Paperwork for scholarship applications. Paperwork for college admissions exams. This was the 1970s. None of this online nonsense. Paperwork meant paper.

At the time, I was under the impression that each state chose the top boy and the top girl in science in that year's high school graduating class, so when I was chosen for the camp, I was able to internally gloat that I was the best male high school senior in science in the state of Oregon. Take that, Dorothy, Cunningham--I'm as good as you!

I probably wasn't. Setting aside that she topped her class, and I didn't, she would have had to overcome the obstacles to scientific success that young women faced at that time. I was spared such obstacles, and in fact I didn't even recognize their existence until decades later. Kudos, Dorothy.

West Virginia offered two camp positions to the governor of each state, and different states selected their delegates in different ways. In 1977, some states, such as Oregon, chose one girl and one boy, but not all states did this. (Whether Oregon did it by happenstance or as a matter of policy, I don't know.) Probably no state made an attempt to identify the "best" graduating high school science students. The only state in which I was one of the two best science-oriented high school graduates was my state of mind.

That kind of realization is what happens when the brash ego of youth morphs into the weary realism of middle age.

Given fifty states and two free passes to the NYSC for each state, West Virginia was ponying up for 100 free vacations for science-oriented high schoolers, 98 of whom were not from West Virginia. And all expenses paid meant all expenses paid. Regardless of whether you lived in next-door Ohio or in far-off Alaska, West Virginia flew you to camp and flew you back home afterwards. That was a big deal in 1977. The air travel industry hadn't been deregulated, so flying wasn't cheap. To this day, I look back on West Virginia's program as an astonishing largesse.

What motivated such generosity? For that matter, what motivated the camp in the first place?

It was a state pride thing. 1963 marked 100 years of West Virginia statehood, and a big celebration was organized. The overriding theme was science (thank you, space race), and when the original goal of luring the annual Boy Scouts jamboree to the state proved untenable, West Virginia created its own jamboree-like event: a three-week camp experience combining science-oriented presentations, outdoor activities, and a brief trip to Washington, DC, for a shot of politics (e.g., a luncheon with US senators) and a dollop of sightseeing.

The camp went so well in 1963, the state decided to make it an annual event. It's been held almost every summer since, the lone exception being 1983, when primary funding was shifting from the state to a nonprofit set up for the purpose.

NYSC 1977

On one of my first days at camp, one of the other boys remarked that he had performed the Millikan experiment in high school. I was stunned. The kid had measured the charge on an electron while a teenager! There was no way I could compete with that. I was out of my league. Way out of my league. One of the top Oregon high school seniors in science be damned, I was lucky to be breathing the same air as this guy.

I eventually came to understand that the league we found ourselves in had a broader range of skills and experiences than I had expected. I fit in fine. 100 freshly-minted high school graduates from all the United States yields a wider variety of teenagers than you might suppose. Or at least than I had supposed. The more people you meet from different backgrounds, the more you recognize how much people's lives vary, even in groups as seemingly homogeneous as American high schoolers. The NYSC nudged me down the road of recognition that the more you learn, the more you appreciate how much you don't know. That realization is useful in science, but it's useful in life, too.

Most days at camp followed a routine. We awoke to a recording of The Rhododendron Song, which until I wrote this blog post I assumed was the state song of West Virginia. It's not. It's not even a state song. (They have four.) Instead, it's a well-known West Virginia camp song, provenance unknown. Both the song's tune and its initial words are as indelibly etched in my brain as if they'd been burned there with a branding iron:
I want to wake up in the morning where the rhododendrons grow...
It's a fitting song for a state where the rhododendron is the state flower.

After rising to the Rhododendron Song and scarfing down breakfast, the day's events began. The NYSC being a science camp, there was a calculated mix of science-oriented activities and camp-oriented ones. An important part of the science program was presentations by outside speakers, and what looks to me now like an exhausting series of topics probably looked to me then like one nifty treat after another. Space exploration, atomic energy, mining, immunology, entomology, genetics, satellite can hit a lot of topics in three weeks.

Two presentations stand out in my memory. The most important was
"A Study of Forest Fires Utilizing Computer Modeling Techniques" by Steve Kessel. 
I liked fire as much as any other stereotypical teenage boy, but that wasn't what got my attention. It was the computer modeling.

In 1977, not many people (and certainly not many young people) had experience using computers. Personal computers didn't really exist yet. The Apple II didn't go on sale until the month the 1977 NYSC took place, and the IBM PC was still four years in the future. Computers at this time were big, expensive machines cloistered in special machine rooms. They had staffs to look after them. You saw computers in movies and on TV, but not in real life.

I was an exception. Thanks to  the foresight, initiative, and dedication of Kathy Reed, my mathematics teacher in seventh and eighth grade, I had programming experience that preceded the science camp by several years. I had never considered using computers to model things like wildfire behavior in forest ecosystems, but Steve Kessel's talk planted a seed in my mind that never went away. It germinated after I finished my bachelor's degree in biology and was pursuing a master's in computer science. The result--directly traceable to Steve's talk at the 1977 NYSC--was software that modeled behavior of a particular virus, Bacteriophage Lambda. (Details here, if you must know.)

The second presentation whose influence outlasted my time at camp was quite different. From what I understand, it was an attempt on the part of the camp's organizers to stir the pot a bit:
"The Scientific Case for Creation" by Gary Parker.
The stirring didn't have the effect they'd hoped for (it generated little discussion amongst the campers), but I was intrigued. I wasn't a creationist then, and I'm not a creationist now, but I felt that part of the scientific method was looking at evidence in different ways, and the creationist way of looking at the evidence for evolution was certainly different. Over the next couple of years, I read some creationist publications, and I spent time trying to determine whether speciation had ever been observed to take place. I ultimately lost interest in creationist challenges to the observations underpinning evolutionary theory, but I still think that applying a skeptical eye to accepted wisdom is an important component of the scientific toolbox.

Not all presentations were by outside experts. Some campers gave short seminars of their own. One was entitled "Helium-Neon Laser Caused Photo-oxidation in Isolated Mesophyll Chloroplast of C3 and C4 Plants," which I'm sure intimidated me as much then as it does now. Even I gave a talk. I could no more compete with helium-neon lasers as with the Millikan experiment, but the seminars didn't have to be technical, and I had bragging rights to something rather exotic by the standards of the time: I'd spent time in Iceland. The previous summer I'd been an exchange student to that country, so I offered a little travelogue called "Iceland on 973 Kronur a day."

The National Youth Science Camp put science front and center, but the camp part was an equally important component of the experience. There was plenty of hiking and backpacking and gathering 'round the campfire at night, but I'd done those things with my family, so they didn't make a huge impression on me. What did were the things I'd never tried before and might never have tried at all had it not been for the NYSC.

One was rock climbing, which I discovered requires a lot more hand and wrist exertion than I had imagined. I haven't found the need to do any rock climbing since, but my tiny exposure to it in West Virginia at least gave me a better appreciation for the enormity of Alex Honnold's accomplishment in Free Solo.

Many outdoorsy activities, including rock climbing, were conducted in small groups. You don't take a hundred inexperienced teens, at least some of whom think they're invulnerable (thank you, brash ego of youth), rope them up, and turn them loose on sheer rock walls en masse. Instead, you take a few to scale cliff faces, and you divide the others into different groups, thus affording them the opportunity to test their invulnerability in other ways.

Spelunking was such a way. I was excited as we donned our caving suits and put on our headlamps. What would we see?, I wondered, as we slipped into the earth. What I most vividly remember is what we didn't see. Some distance into the cave, our guide had us  extinguish our head lamps so we would know what true darkness--the absolute absence of light--was like. You don't forget your first encounter with utter blackness. At least I haven't. I don't know if this kind of experience is still possible, given the panoply of devices with glowing LEDs I'm sure campers carry with them these days, but it made a lasting impression on me.

Wriggling about underground was not my thing. It was interesting to do once, but it's dirty, cold, and physically demanding, and, based on my single experience with it, most of what's underground is brown or grey and just not that exciting to look at. However, I wouldn't have those impressions had I not given it a try at the NYSC. I'm grateful that I was able to.

Whitewater kayaking, on the other hand (another first for me), was fabulous fun. You don't so much sit in a whitewater kayak as wear it. It responds to every move of your body. I loved it. I also loved that before they'd allow you to get more than a few feet from shore in completely calm waters, you had to prove that you could get out of the kayak if it overturned. Proof involved pulling off the spray skirt and doing a somersault out of the kayak while upside down and under water. I left camp determined to whitewater kayak again. I never did, though in recent years I've done a little flatwater kayaking. It's not the same. I still hold out hope that I might revisit whitewater kayaking, but being now in my 60s instead of my teens, I'd probably shoot for water a little less white. I don't feel quite as invulnerable as I used to.

Beyond scientific presentations and outdoor activities, the NYSC also featured excursions to places such as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Washington, DC, and the site of the civil war Battle of Camp Allegheny. I'll spare you the details. By now, I hope you understand why I believe the camp is a unique undertaking.

NYSC 2020

This year's camp was virtual. SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) made on-site activities like spelunking, white water kayaking, visiting Washington, and waking up to the Rhododendron Song impossible. However, it didn't prevent the camp from offering an online-based program of lectures, directed studies, and interactive seminars on a raft of topics, including missions to mars, paleontology, colorectal surgery, electric vehicles, radio astronomy, 3D printing, machine learning, sleep, tapirs, and COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19. It made me wish I was 18 all over again, though perhaps this time with slightly less raging hormones.

The International Youth Science Camp

At some point, the National Youth Science Camp went international. It's had delegates from foreign countries since at least 1988, and in the ensuing thirty-plus years, over 400 campers from more than two dozen countries have taken part in and contributed to the NYSC experience. If contemporary camps have an impact on today's delegates akin to that of 1977's on me, the ripples emanating from West Virginia's 1963 centennial splash will continue to propagate for many, many years.

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