CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The National Youth Science Foundation, long a source of pride for West Virginia, says it’s ready for the next step.
The foundation, which promotes science learning on a global level through its annual National Youth Science Camp at Camp Pocahontas in the mountains of West Virginia, has its eyes on growth in several new ways.
Highest profile is the development of a new campus right outside Davis, Tucker County, that would provide full-time access to modern facilities just a couple of hours from Dulles Airport.
Also in development are additional learning programs meant to boost encouragement of West Virginia youths to embrace science and math.
And around the edges of those are renewed efforts to reach out to science camp alumni who are making their mark on the world, to connect with science and engineering firms inclined to support the work here and to act as an ambassador for West Virginia.
“We don’t want the camp to be a hidden gem,” said John Giroir, director of the National Youth Science Camp.
National Youth Science Camp began in 1962 as West Virginia looked ahead to its centennial celebration. State leaders were looking for a way to highlight service and learning for youth and initially considered partnering with the Boy Scouts but then focused on science students.
This was before the coining of the word term STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. But those are the kinds of science students the camp has encouraged throughout its history.
The first camp was planned to be a one-time program, but it stuck to this day.
The National Youth Science Foundation tries to keep its alumni in the mix. Some of its most successful come back to serve as speakers and to encourage young students. Last summer, the camp brought in Anita Riddle, procurement manager for Exxon Mobile and Rudy Tanzi, a neurologist and leader of the Alzheimer’s Genome Project.
“We have dozens if not hundreds of others who are playing those roles,” said Andy Blackwood, executive director of the National Youth Science Foundation.
Keeping those connections can only help the state, he said.
“This is the economic development aspect of National Youth Science Camp,” Blackwood said. “We want opportunity in West Virginia. What we hope to do over the next several years is showcase those opportunities here.”
When campers come to West Virginia many are immediately enthralled with its green landscapes and mountainous terrain.
“After they come through, West Virginia is their second home,” Giroir said.
Blackwood chimed in, “They’re singing ‘Country Roads.'”
For its first 20 years, National Youth Science Camp, located in Thornwood, Pocahontas County, was state-funded. After that, it became a public-private partnership with the state contributing about a quarter of the operating cost. The rest is a combination of contributions from alums, other nonprofits, corporate partners and other donors.
For many businesses with a science and engineering focus, partnership with the National Youth Science Camp may be a natural.
“Business and industry around the country need innovators, they need those STEM skills to develop economic opportunities,” Blackwood said.
This month, the National Youth Science Foundation established a new position, development officer, and hired Rich West, a West Virginia native and former advertising executive at Charleston Newspapers. West is already encouraging supporters to get in touch with him or to visit http://www.nysf.com/w/donate/
“He recognized what those challenges are for us and recognized how that support will empower the foundation to pursue our mission,” Blackwood said.
West actually spent last summer volunteering for the five weeks of National Youth Science Camp and learned to love it.
“They’re the brightest STEM students in the entire world,” he said.
West’s job is to make fundraising a priority, rather than being a task Blackwood and Giroir hope to get around to filling.
“One of the biggest challenges for Rich is to help us connect with STEM businesses who don’t already have a relationship with National Youth Science Camp,” Blackwood said. “Plenty of other philanthropists around the state and country don’t already have a relationship.”
The National Youth Science Foundation thinks there are some projects they can get behind.
A couple of efforts are aimed at helping West Virginia students embrace science, technology, engineering and math. One, for middle schoolers, is called “The Field Trip.”
It lines up small groups for a weekend visit to a STEM destination and starts after the first of this year. The result should be encouragement for students who might not realize they have aptitude or a career path, Blackwood said.
“West Virginia has got to make a transformation,” he said.
Another is project-based learning for high school students. They’ll spend five to 10 days alongside a science or engineering professional, working on a project to enrich their school experience. Participants look at questions in an open-ended way and use their creativity, collect data or perform experiments.
“Science is not just in the school or classroom,” Blackwood said. “It’s everywhere.”
The Tucker County school system is a partner, but the National Youth Science Foundation might take on others as funding allows.
“We’ll keep these things going as long as we have money coming in,” Blackwood said.
The biggest goal, though, is completion of the new National Youth Science Center outside Davis.
The National Youth Science Foundation already has 111 acres, purchased in 2006, to develop a permanent campus there. Building out the camp will modernize the setting for science campers — and also give supporters a point of pride.
“It’s a work in progress,” Blackwood said.
A Research and Education Center, is one key component already on site. It was built by the Canaan Valley Institute, which is still in the building. Another tenant is Trout Unlimited, and there are opportunities for others to take space.
Still ahead are other aspects of campus development including commons areas and an education laboratory.
“This is the dream where we can do everything,” West said. “This is part of what we hope to develop when we gather trustees and stakeholders together in April.”
Again, the issue is raising money.
“We’ll develop a capital campaign to get it funded and built,” Blackwood said. “We’re putting the program together to move this forward.”
A bridge onto the property, completed just this past year, opens up access and will help visitors visualize what will be there one day.
“We have to be able to get them in there and show them what our dreams are,” West said.
West is excited to sell the story.
“This is something that makes West Virginia shine,” he said.