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New camp connects kids to the science of outdoor adventure

Students hike at the Summit during WVSAC.

In mid-May, WVU hosted the first West Virginia Science Adventure Camp program at the Boy Scouts of America’s Summit Bechtel Reserve.

The two-week program was broken up into two parts. The first week featured day camp experiences where more than 50 students from Meadow Bridge Elementary School in Fayette County participated in a number of outdoor activities. The second week featured an overnight camp and hosted 30 students from Beckley Stratton Middle School.

Attending students participated in rock climbing, zip-lining and cycling activities. They learned about physics, engineering, anatomy, biology, ecology and mathematics.

Program Coordinator John Greene said the goal of the program was to engage students in STEM learning, personal development and social growth, wellness literacy and a sense of place.

Students on the climbing wall during WVSAC.

"We were able to introduce students to the world of scientific inquiry through adventure-based programming. Students were able to engage with complex scientific principles in a hands-on manner while developing meaningful relationships with their teachers and peers," he said.

Meadow Bridge teacher Natalie Mullins brought a group of students to one of the day camps. She said that her group was fascinated with the program.

"They're up and moving. They're touching and interacting with the science. It's a lot better than just sitting in a classroom,” she said. 

One of Mullins’ students, sixth-grader Alexis Cooper, wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. But on a warm Thursday morning at the Summit, “rock climber” seemed like a very real path.

"We're learning about science and how you work your muscles. We're learning about the rocks themselves and what you use when you're climbing," she said.  

"I think it's really cool that I'm learning a lot of stuff I don't know and getting to know it better."

Just a few stations away, fifth-grader Jadon Butcher was exploring the geological principles of obduction and subduction with camp counselor Jamie Sullivan, a WVU sophomore environmental geoscience major from Bowie, Maryland.

“We’re learning about geology and how rocks can actually move,” said Butcher. “It’s awesome.”

Sullivan said that she signed up to work the camp because she fell in love with the idea of outdoor instruction.

“Learning in this environment is really connecting science with adventure. It's really cool to show them the science behind these activities. Most people think of a lab when they think about science, but we're doing real science out here,” she said.

The start of something great in the great outdoors

Students pose for a photo during the West Virginia Science Adventure Camp.

The West Virginia Science Adventure Camp also functioned as a proving ground for the study of outdoor programming and a launch point for expansion of adventure and STEM outreach in Southern West Virginia.

“We set this experience up to be a pilot program to test out curriculum, program structure, facilities and systems,” said Greene. “We found a lot of success with this program, but we were also able to identify some areas for growth and change. The hope is that we can offer this program on a wider more permanent basis in the future.”

WVU Tech professor Dr. Afrin Naz visited the camp during its operation. As a coordinator of a number of K-12 STEM outreach initiatives in the state, she has been working to facilitate new programs with the Summit.

“I was really excited to learn that we have such a world-class facility available nearby. We are always looking to improve and expand our K-12 STEM outreach programs. Working alongside the Boy Scouts to use their outdoor resources at the Summit will allow us to provide students with new opportunities to explore the sciences in an interactive outdoor environment,” she said.

The success of the first WVSAC and continued work with the BSA has already spawned new activities and initiatives for area youth.

“Our 2018 STEM Summer Girls Academy participants are already scheduled to conduct their biology experiment at the natural environment of the Summit. We are also working with Raleigh and Fayette County Schools to develop new K-12 STEM outreach programs to bring their middle school and high school students to the Summit during the regular school year,” she said.

Students learn about the structures of the human hand during WVSAC.

Alice Morgan is a Ph.D. student at WVU studying forest resources science. She worked during the WVSAC to capture data on the how the outdoor curriculum impacted students. She administered surveys before and after students completed the programming.

“We're looking at science identity – do they feel like they're good at science and has science become more accessible to them? We’re looking at interpersonal relationships, such as how they make decisions and how they work with others to overcome challenges. And we're also looking at place attachment to West Virginia. What their emotional connection to the state is and if that change after being in the state and doing these activities,” she said.

Morgan said that she looks forward to seeing the outcome of her study and that she hopes her research can help educators build more effective programs.

"Programs like this are great for a lot of reasons. Out here, these lessons are more exciting than standard classroom learning. If you're rock climbing and you're learning about how rock climbing works at the same time, it makes that material much more accessible than it might be if you're watching a video or learning about it in a classroom,” she said.

All told, Greene said that the West Virginia Science Adventure Camp’s inaugural run was a success.

"After two weeks of consistent programming to the youth of West Virginia, the WVSAC was a profound success. We managed to achieve both our goals of providing meaningful experiences to public school students and learning effective strategies for programming in the future," he said.

The WVSAC was made possible by a private donation. 

Images by Matt Shreve and Michael Meador.