MOMENTS IN TIME: The summer before MIT

Learning science “Mens et Manus” at the National Youth Science Camp

Jenny Zhang – NH 2012

We often hear about the summer after high school, of those warm days shrouded in familiarity before the thrilling independence of college. After graduation, I promised myself to make the most of this last summer, to try new things, take risks, and gain perspective.

A few weeks later, I found myself living in a cluster of cabins in the West Virginian woods with more than a hundred other teenagers. There was no phone service or electricity as lightning storms swept across the state. We tossed Frisbees in the morning, conducted science experiments throughout the day, and showered with buckets of icy creek water less often than we liked. This was not some strange version of The Hunger Games.

This was science camp.

The National Youth Science Camp (NYSC) was not your typical science camp. Living away from home and civilization for three weeks was far more than an academic experience — the camp environment challenged us socially and physically and taught us much about ourselves.

The 120 delegates in attendance represented every state and many countries in the Western Hemisphere. The diversity of our backgrounds, along with the lack of technology, was overwhelming at first. However, being out of touch with the rest of the world led to a beautiful thing — we connected deeply with each other. Many of us had never known what it would be like to live “in the woods,” away from the bustle of the city. I had never known how it felt to spend days without keeping track of time or adhering to a schedule in my mind. At science camp, I lost track of time and learned to go with the flow. By letting go, I discovered my own rhythms.

Every day, professionals from the fields of science, engineering, and math visited camp to present fascinating lectures and activities. We were moved by the stories of a man who built medical shelters in the Solomon Islands. He urged us to find connections between the STEM areas, our environment, and society and to actively help others. A doctor shared his research in breast cancer therapies using prolactin receptor signaling, but also his frustrations at the inefficiency of the medical field. He emphasized that understanding science is not limited to knowing the facts, but also involves considering how they fit into the world around us. Oftentimes, the best empirical solution does not apply to reality because of political, social, or economic reasons. While many of the lecturers commented on confrontations between science and society, they also urged us to be optimistic.

NYSC brought the adventure back into science. Instead of learning in a classroom setting, we slogged through cranberry bogs to take samples of the native carnivorous plant to study the enzymatic activity of its digestive juices. We built our own solar oven and baked cookies. After looking over anatomical diagrams, we took learning to the next level by dissecting a real human arm. True to the idea of “Mens et Manus,” we had countless opportunities to apply our knowledge. The hands-on philosophy of camp continued during our overnight camping trips in the surrounding national forest. Instead of doing a typical nature hike, I picked wild blueberries, swam underneath a waterfall, and biked across a mountain ridge. During one hike, we camped along cliffs that overlooked the rolling hills of the state. We slept on the cliffs that night, nestled close against the bulk of the ledge separating us from the dizzying drop. I lay there, bathed in the glow of the Milky Way and an indescribable feeling of wonder.

Attending the National Youth Science Camp exceeded all of my expectations. Hiking and biking over 50 miles over the course of camp inspired in me a stronger appreciation for nature and a sense of empowerment. The encouraging lecturers and hands-on activities have increased my curiosity and awareness. I think a little piece of the woods will always stay with me, a reminder to keep searching for new perspectives and adventures at MIT.

Originally published in The Tech, MIT’s student paper.  See the original article here.  To learn more about Jenny and her experiences at the 2012 National Youth Science Camp, visit her delegate profile page.