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Top students arrive for W.Va.'s 50th National Youth Science Camp

By Laura Reston
Lawrence Pierce
Students arrive at Yeager Airport ready to attend the annual National Youth Science Camp. The camp is expected to bring together more than 120 student delegates who will leave Charleston today for Camp Pocahontas, a rustic outpost in the state's eastern mountains. Students with career aspirations of computer engineering, molecular biology and other scientific fields are attending the camp.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Paul Miller, a professor of physics at West Virginia University, discussed human spontaneous combustion, telepathy and critical thinking during his address Wednesday evening to welcome student delegates to the National Youth Science Camp.

This is the West Virginia-based science camp's 50th year. For those five decades, the camp has gathered high school students who've excelled at science and mathematics.

Earlier Wednesday, student delegates flew into Yeager Airport.

Delegates spend one month learning from world-renowned scientists every summer at Camp Pocahontas -- a rustic outpost nestled among the Appalachians in Eastern West Virginia.

Miller told students to capitalize on the month they spend at Camp Pocahontas.

He encouraged them to examine evidence and think critically.

Science and technology, he said, have permeated modern life. Yet Miller noted that average Americans have very little basic scientific knowledge.

A sizeable portion of the general public even believes that telepathy, astrology and human spontaneous combustion exist, Miller said, which is a problem he calls "scientific illiteracy." Such illiteracy occurs because current scientific consensus is too complex or sophisticated for the general public to understand, he said.

According to Miller, people are genetically trained to look for certain patterns or rely on certain biases to process information.

"Our brains are highly suggestible," Miller said. "We quickly sort things. We use bias all the time to simplify our lives."

Those biases often yield illogical conclusions, like the idea that human spontaneous combustion and telepathy exist, he said. Young scientists can help mitigate that trend, Miller said.

Scientists can question established thought processes and thereby challenge untrue assumptions, he said, and he encouraged the students to rely on evidence and use critical thinking to approach scientific problems.

Miller also argued that professors should change the way that they teach science classes, to make information more easily understandable for students.

"We have to learn how to think," Miller said.

Those changes would involve replacing traditional lectures with more interactive learning.

Only a few hours before Miller's lecture, students flooded the baggage claim at Yeager Airport. They clutched sheaves of paperwork and proudly displayed new nametags while chatting tentatively to neighboring delegates.

Alexis Page of Crete, Neb., hugged her pink laptop case as she hovered by the baggage carousel. She had learned about the program from her high school science teacher last January.

Although Page seemed nervous, she beamed as she tried to pinpoint why she likes biology. She said she loves the rush after an "aha moment" when she finally understands a difficult problem or solves a scientific puzzle.

She will attend the University of Nebraska next fall, where she hopes to study molecular biology.

Adam Zaccone, another delegate, comes from Harlan, Iowa -- a small town of about 5,000 people that sits between Omaha and Des Moines. Zaccone has always been able to lose himself building blocks or figuring out how machines work. He decided to channel that talent into a career as a mechanical engineer.

Alisha Rege of Allentown, Pa., also hopes to become an engineer -- a computer engineer. She first discovered the camp while researching Marissa Mayer, the new CEO and president of Yahoo, on Wikipedia. Mayer had attended the camp in 1993 before enrolling at Stanford University. Intrigued, Rege decided to apply.

Nearby, Erika Kaske lugged her massive red suitcase from the carousel. She wants to become a doctor and plans to pursue a pre-medical degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison next year.

Kaske said a medical career would give her an opportunity to interact with patients and do something that she loves. She said she hopes to meet new people, make connections and improve her résumé at camp.

Marina Castellino traveled more than 14 hours from her native Argentina to Charleston. She hopes to study chemical engineering -- a discipline that she said teaches her "to understand the world."

Over the next few days, students will be able to tour the laboratories at the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center and at Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College in South Charleston.

Students also can hear lectures and seminars led by world-renowned scientists who come to Camp Pocahontas every year, said Jessica Frey, public information coordinator for the NYSC.

The camp has served more than 5,000 students since 1963. This year, 122 delegates have traveled to Charleston to attend the camp. They hail from almost every state and nine other countries. Each state has sent two students, and 26 delegates are from other countries.

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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