This summer-camp experience empowers teens for future STEM careers

Looking like an out-of-place scientist with his gloves and eye protection, Dr. Jerry Walsh commands the attention of a group of teens. He drops an unpeeled banana into a bowl. Smoke rises as he pours liquid nitrogen on the fruit.

After several minutes, the audience watches as Walsh removes the banana and taps it on the table in front of them. The fruit, frozen solid, breaks into several chunks.

This isn’t a culinary experiment gone wrong. Instead, this demonstration helps Walsh, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, grasp teens’ attention while teaching them the eye-opening basics of cryogenics.

Does this sound like a typical day at a Boy Scout summer camp? Probably not. And that’s the point. The weeklong STEM X program at Cherokee Scout Reservation, a resident camp in central North Carolina, sets tradition aside and paves the way for a new kind of summer camp — one that’s tailored to teens with an interest in all things science, technology, engineering and math.

Pursuing Interests, Not Badges

Eighteen-year-old Addison Causey, an Eagle Scout from Troop 103, says he has attended many Scout summer camps, but that STEM X was like no other.

Twenty-five campers from ninth grade to age 20 registered for STEM X program tracks that included architecture, digital design, physics and chemistry. The registered Boy Scouts and one Venturer spent mornings dabbling in their chosen program activities — experimenting with gases by combining baking soda and pancake mix, disassembling old radios, crafting building designs from cardboard and more.

Come afternoon, campers let loose at one of Cherokee Scout Reservation’s activity stations, such as the shooting and archery ranges, a metalworking shop or an evening drone-flying demonstration. Some simply hung out with friends.

“We were given a lot of freedom to explore things we like,” Addison says.

While that self-driven schedule might not sound new at a Scout summer camp, the major difference at STEM X was that none of the program activities were directly linked to advancement. The focus, says Colin Lemon, Old North State Council’s director of camping and STEM programs, is on more than earning merit badges.

“Part of our goal is to help kids decide what they do and don’t want to do after they graduate high school,” he says.

Follow the Leaders

As the STEM X volunteers began shaping the event — and the group realized the importance placed on career exploration — they knew STEM X could not turn to youth leaders as guides, which is often the case at Scout camps. They needed to call in experts.

Experts like Professor Walsh; Jim Rains, associate professor of architecture at N.C. State University College of Design and former vice president of the American Institute of Architects; and David Carter, president of Emerging Technologies Inc. — to name a few.

“We didn’t want boring, pocket-protector college professors,” Lemon says.

These leaders were recruited to help teach program tracks because of their experience with and their passion for the subject matter, says Mike Matzinger, STEM X event chair, who is president of a North Carolina-based chemicals company.

“It’s one thing to go to summer camp and get to work with an older Scout,” STEM X instructor Carter says. “It’s a whole different experience to work with someone with a Ph.D. in chemistry.”

Addison, who wants to study engineering, worked alongside instructor Rains. He was impressed with Rains’ hands-on teaching — particularly when building their own structures and demonstrating what would and would not work in real life.

“He taught me new ideas,” Addison says.

Those new ideas came to life when the teen joined fellow campers for an offsite visit to a nearby “tiny house” at N.C. State University’s College of Design. “It was amazing to learn how it was designed and built,” he says.

Offsite trips let participants watch professionals at work. Digital design campers created two gaming apps during a visit to High Point University. Physics participants toured a nuclear plant, steam/coal plant and solar farm. The chemistry program participants’ adventure included a visit to the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a project of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as well as a tour of a water treatment plant.

Plugged In

Just think: Addison’s experience with architecture at STEM X could help shape his future engineering career. And that’s exactly what STEM X is all about.

“Teens get a chance to invest in themselves,” Matzinger says. “They might walk away [from STEM X] saying, ‘Wow, I just saved $80,000 in college expenses’ or ‘Now I know I like it; how do I learn more?’ ”

For those wanting to learn more — whether at a trade school or university — STEM X connected campers with area college and school representatives during its College Night. Admissions experts from North Carolina State, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Rockingham Community College, Guilford Technical Community College and other schools answered questions and showed participants how to be prepared to apply.

“I had one parent pull me aside after the week was over and say, ‘My son just said he wants to go to N.C. State — he’s never talked about college before,’ ” Lemon says. “Other campers went home and parents were stunned because they had brochures from colleges and they were talking about their own goals.”

After camp ends, the possibilities are endless.

“There’s a lot of angst among teenagers today when it comes to making a choice and deciding what they might be interested in as a future career,” Matzinger says. “As a parent, it’s really hard when your kid doesn’t have a clue. STEM X is a chance for Scouting and STEM to come together and help get them plugged in to their future.”


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Experience STEM X from July 30 to Aug. 4 by registering at bsastemx.org

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