National Youth Science Camp makes young people aware of possibilities

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BARTOW, W.Va. -- Marissa Mayer, an engineer who created many of the innovations that has kept Google on its perch as the Internet's most powerful company, was tapped earlier this month to work her magic at troubled Yahoo. At 37, she is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Ms. Mayer counts her experience as a delegate at the National Youth Science Camp in 1983 as vital in helping contribute to her successful career path, said Lynne Schwabe, director of the foundation that funds the camp. She was one of two delegates selected by the Wisconsin governor to attend.

Founded in 1963, the camp offers rising college freshmen the chance to tackle the many varieties of science in a low-pressure way. Students who attend are high-achieving, but may not yet know what they love about science. The summer sees them learning from experts across various fields and immersing in a peer group.

It's a traditional summer camp, in some ways: Campers play Ultimate Frisbee and go on overnight hiking trips. But mealtime conversation in the rustic dining hall isn't just giggling and gossip. Even in their free time, the delegates wonder aloud about whether they'll study chemistry or applied math in college - or if there's a way to do them both.

Many of the staffers at the camp are alumni, and they hold informal, optional "seminar" sessions in the afternoons. At one of these, Mike Elsbury, a presenter at the camp, talked with delegates about funding and the advantages of applying for a Ph.D. instead of a master's degree. At the same time, just down the hill, campers were learning how to swing dance. For hours afterward, an impromptu dance party on the lawn featured the campers' new moves.

Students attend lectures every morning and evening. One of the camp celebrities, high school math teacher and former camper David Masunaga, addressed a captivated audience about fractal geometry. He ended his lecture by cycling through images of a common fractal, the Mandelbrot set, alongside a rousing Tchaikovsky symphony. At least 15 campers stayed to ask for his autograph.

"It provides the kinds of hands-on experience that a lot of school districts can't provide just because of funding," he said.

And for several hours a day, students take electives, taught by visiting lecturers who are experts in their fields. One of the Pennsylvania delegates, Shirley Mo, spent her mornings dissecting a human heart with a medical researcher. Other topics students can choose include the math behind origami, issues in bioethics and computer science.

Ms. Schwabe works with alumni like Ms. Mayer, Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman, a major aerospace company, and David Hackleman, inventor of the Hewlett-Packard Inkjet printer; She said Ms. Mayer recalls a moment during a camp lecture as the key that "unlocked her brain" to its full potential.

Desiree Henrikson, the director of the camp, said the liberal arts, experimental approach the camp takes to science can change the way already smart kids look at their next four years of college.

"Sometimes they never take a chance to step back and look at other fields," she said. "They can pick things they've never even looked at before. ... They don't just see engineering or medicine; they see how it relates to everything."

education - region - science

Sanjena Sathian: ssathian@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1408.


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