BARTOW, W.Va. -- On a hot July day in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, 19-year-old Shana Rose was enjoying a typical afternoon at summer camp as she and her friends took turns spraying each other with a small fountain.
It was a smart way to beat the heat in more ways than one: The water was powered by a solar panel so that when a shadow blocked the sun, the spray stopped, but in the open sun, it spewed freely. And that morning, Ms. Rose had studied the technology behind the souped-up sprinkler system in her class at the National Youth Science Camp.
The camp aims to give high-achieving students a chance to experience science in a fun setting. Especially when it comes to sciences, or STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education, learning over the summer matters, education experts say. Students need exposure to hands-on, experiential science beyond the textbook, or they won't get turned on to science careers.
West Virginia science camp serves high achievers
The National Youth Science Camps in West Virginia are a nonprofit enterprise that serve high-achieving high school graduates. (Video by Sanjena Sathian; edited by Brian Batko; 7/30/2012)
But increasingly, STEM experts say that filling gaps in jobs at the associate and technical levels matters more for maintaining an American technological edge than getting more doctorate degrees. And for that, lower-achieving students may also need to go to science camp.
This summer, Ms. Rose, of Reading, Berks County, is one of 120 rising college freshmen attending the selective residential science camp. Two delegates are selected from each of the 50 states and several countries to win a scholarship to the camp, which is funded by the nonprofit National Youth Science Foundation. To get in, students have to apply or, in some states, win the state science fair; applicants are expected to have impressive grades and resumes and to want to pursue science after high school.
Campers spend the summer at the Camp Pocahontas 4H site attending lectures by NASA astronauts, taking late-night astronomy readings, collecting carnivorous juices from pitcher plants and, of course, hiking, kayaking and amassing mosquito bites.
"It's the first time I'm actually able to have a conversation with someone who's intellectual and not feel awkward," said Ms. Rose, who wrote her application essay about hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region. She wants to study environmental science at Kutztown University in the fall.
Shirley Mo, 18, the other Pennsylvania delegate, will leave her home in Erie to attend Harvard. Six of the camp's delegates are going to Princeton, and five to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One-fourth of the camp will attend a top 25 university as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Ninety-nine percent of campers since the program began in 1963 have completed bachelor's degrees, mostly in the sciences, and more than half went on to receive doctorates.
"Many colleges won't have practical engineering classes or give these students industry experience," said Mac Louthan, a retired material scientist and one of the instructors at the camp. He said the summer gives students a reason to stay in science -- an excitement and an outlook stretching beyond the years of organic chemistry and tedious textbooks ahead of them.
President Barack Obama has pushed for better STEM education, on the grounds that it will help America stay ahead of rival nations in industries such as manufacturing. Most STEM education experts agree that interventions to get students to like science have to come early to interest them in a career.
Robert Tai, who studies STEM education at the University of Virginia, said there's no shortage of work for people with doctorates, between post-doctoral positions within academia and industry careers. But that work can be lower-paying than other options -- even being an astronaut doesn't pay well, joked Piers Sellers, a NASA astronaut, during his lecture at the camp. High-achieving students need incentives to choose scientific fields over lucrative jobs like finance, Mr. Tai and other education experts said.
Carol Tang, an informal science educator in California, said summer does what test-focused teaching and resource-strapped classrooms can't. "You need to engage children if you want them to be scientists," she said. "Test scores are not a good predictor of who becomes a scientist -- interest is."
And "unstructured" activities contribute the most to that interest, said Chris Schunn, a STEM education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research Development Center. He said it's the opportunity to do extended experiments and projects instead of just listening to a teacher that gives students true fascination for science.
Ms. Mo's friend Siddharth Dhawan, 18, came to the camp from Oregon this summer. Last year, he attended MIT's prestigious summer research program; he'll attend Princeton in the fall. He said his father bought him a copy of "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking in sixth grade and helped him find a research mentor during high school when he found school unchallenging.
The exposure he got outside of his advance placement classes over summers made the difference, he said. "I really needed sort of that initial push."
But just getting the smartest students into scientific professions isn't enough, according to a July report from the President's Council on Science and Technology. Eighty-two percent of manufacturers lacked a large enough pool of science- and technology-skilled workers -- especially among technicians and equipment operators, the report shows. And 74 percent of manufacturers said the lack of workers was the reason they couldn't expand domestic operations.
The report called the community college level of education the "sweet spot" for targeting the kinds of workers who will fill the gaps in STEM industries at the associate and technical level.
Mr. Schunn said summer programs reaching out to students who may not stand out as academic superstars can begin that exposure earlier.
Carnegie Mellon's summer math and science program for high school students targets under-represented and "B-students," said Ty Walton, camp director. She said the program gets students applying to mid-tier schools to consider places such as MIT or Harvey Mudd.
"It builds their confidence," she said. "It allows them to become a community of learners."
But more is needed to engage students whose disadvantages begin at an earlier age.
The Programme for International Student Assessment, a comparative international study that the White House cites as an example of America's falling science standards, shows that American elementary school students are generally on-par with other nations. The drop-off in test scores and interest, especially for minorities and girls, begins in middle school.
"The 'dumb kids' never get to do the fun stuff in school," said Gabrielle Lyon, who directs a Chicago extracurricular STEM program for underrepresented students. In 10 years, alumni of her program have seen a 96 percent graduation rate; 60 percent go on to higher education, and 66 percent of that group go on to work in STEM careers. Ms. Lyon said the general population's disengagement from science is culturally ingrained. Access to science, she said, needs to happen at all levels of achievement.
Eddie Willson, the director of Pittsburgh's Summer Dreamers Academy for low-income students in grades K-8, models the camp off premier camps like NYSC, mixing traditions like a morning camp circle with classroom time. Students spend at least 90 minutes on science a day, and some can choose to sign up for special science-based activities, like designing their own video game.
Programs like Summer Dreamers cut at the base of the problem in STEM -- it's an issue that begins at the highest levels, in discussions of American global competitiveness, seeps into jobs and domestic industry, links back to colleges and vocational schools, and ultimately finds its way to a classroom of first-graders at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School on the North Side. The Summer Dreamers teacher, Jen Friedman, tried to talk over the students' clamoring voices.
Destiny Preston, 7, was one of the few kids not interrupting the teacher. Curiously, she turned the toy laser Ms. Friedman had passed out onto a mirror and watched the light reflect. To qualify for the camp, Destiny had to be one of the most disadvantaged students in the school district -- both economically and in terms of achievement.
But Destiny doesn't know that.
"I want to be a teacher when I grow up," she said. A science teacher.
Sanjena Sathian: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1408. First Published July 30, 2012 4:00 AM