Fifty years ago this month I was in the midst of an extraordinary experience. Because of the Soviet “Sputnik” scare in 1957, science education was intensified throughout the country and during the summers of the 1960s the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored numerous science camps for high school students at major universities. I was lucky enough to attend one at Florida State University in 1964.
It was a tumultuous time — President Kennedy had been killed seven months before and the civil rights movement was in full swing. My roommate was from Alabama and an ardent supporter of Gov. George Wallace. Not unexpectedly, at the end of the camp he was selected as “most likely to secede.” Despite these political distractions, those six weeks forever altered my outlook on life and my future goals. Sadly, the funding for these programs was eliminated over the years, but West Virginia’s National Youth Science Camp (NYSC), which began in 1963, still convenes each June and, in addition to unparalleled academic stimulation, it also includes spectacular outdoor opportunities only rarely seen at the NSF camps.
Over 100 recent high school graduates from nearly all 50 states and several foreign countries attend each year (this summer, 60 percent were women), selected on merit by their state and national leaders. Additionally, since 2010, there has been a similar camp, also located in Pocahontas County, for 60 exemplary West Virginia students. For many years, my wife and I have had the opportunity to house science campers on their day of arrival in Charleston. Meeting them, getting a feel for their motivations, and attending local lectures have been annual highlights, but we were always left to wonder what awaited these talented youngsters in the mountains.
Finally, just a few weeks ago, I was able to visit an active camp and was struck by many things. Not only was there youthful exuberance, the serenity of a remote and beautiful location, amazing individual intellectual and artistic skills, the anticipation that tomorrow’s unknown agenda would surpass today’s, but, most importantly, there was also fervent attention to the scientific method. These best and brightest understand the concepts of observation, developing a question and hypothesis, meticulously testing that hypothesis, and, hopefully, reaching a conclusion. Even as teenagers they are well aware that science cannot be ignored or manipulated and that its power can be used to solve society’s problems.
A half century ago we may have witnessed profound social upheaval, but the belief in science was unquestioned — just recall how the public supported the advances in molecular biology and space exploration. Distressingly, today’s campers see a nation where science is no longer uniformly preeminent, as we debate climate change, evolution, and other polarizing issues. Despite the stark irony of the reluctance of many Mountain State citizens to accept the pronouncements of some scientific experts, West Virginians seem very proud of our state’s investment in America’s future. Undeniably, the countless stories of NYSC alumni who have changed the world inspire us all.
These remarkable “kids” will indeed be a key factor to help science regain its rightful position of leadership in our country. Since the federal government’s role continues to be a question mark, West Virginia can be a catalyst for this renaissance by providing the necessary funding to assure that these programs grow and thrive. It’s up to us to make this happen.
Dan Foster, a former state senator, is a Charleston surgeon and a Gazette contributing columnist.