Friday, July 30, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp

I read recently that one of the greatest "manly traditions" worth restoring was proper correspondence. Well, I can't begin to try to write a letter to every one of you, so I'll try this open letter to all the campers, their families, their friends, my fellow counselors, staff, our guests from ExxonMobil, and anyone else interested in the BHSSC.

This camp was an incredible experience for everyone involved, and I believe we would be hard pressed to find any single person who didn't walk away from the Silent Wings Museum today a little bigger, a little bolder, and a little more excited about the future yet to come. Hopefully, without running off into too many words, I can use this letter to relay the many lessons I've learned from the camp and, also hopefully, some of you can connect.

I begin with the kids, and the many important things of which I was reminded by them. I said to them during one session that "rarely do we really need new knowledge; we most need to be reminded what we already know." Never have I felt that was more true than when I left the museum this afternoon, and I aim to elaborate below.

I witnessed these children grow in just two weeks. Those who entered the Murdough cafeteria meek, frightened, and nervous, unsure of themselves, their ability, and their interest in a 10-day science camp, came into a strange environment, populated by "math & science kids" that stood heads taller than them, staff & counselors pointing them this way and that, parents milling about with confusion and apprehension, and a building they had likely never before seen. They came in as any of us would in similar circumstances--scared!

But by the end of that first week, I could see the gears spinning in their heads, as they leaped fearlessly into the scientific and engineering methods of problem solving. They asked questions, they dug deeper, they wanted to know more, and they wanted to answer more. I witnessed these kids, who were all the "smartest in their class" and who rarely would have asked a peer anything, reach out to others who thought differently, and I could see in them the warm embrace of others' ideas. This is intellectual growth at its finest.

Even more than that, I witnessed incredible personal growth. Those meek, timid kids who came to us with hardly a word to say, by the end, were expressive, vibrant, inspiring balls of charisma, alive with the freshness of every day's activities and the challenge of new problems to solve. Within their teams, they became friends and colleagues, able to attack any issue with zest so long as their team was supportive. Outside their teams, they became networkers, quick to trust and open to new ideas.

If just two weeks in an environment like this could stimulate these brilliant minds, and these wonderful characters, to such heights, I can only begin to imagine how successful, influential, and paradigm-changing they will be as a team in the future!

Perhaps the lessons I will hold most dear, however, are those related to being reminded of what I already knew. Working with these students for 10 days, I was reminded to embrace pure passion. No middle-schooler goes to a science camp because it looks good on a resume. No middle-schooler writes an essay and collects letters of reference for a science camp because recruiters will like it. No middle-schooler steps WAY outside his comfort zone and meets dozens of new people because he thinks it will help him in college. A middle-schooler comes to a science camp because, after all the parent poking & prodding, and after all the well-intended advice from teachers, they love science.

Some of these kids said they didn't like math, or they were bad at science, or they didn't know what an engineer was, but they attended this camp every day for two weeks because pure passion exists for the subject and genuine curiousity was enough motivation to act on that passion. I am reminded by them to truly love that which I love, and to devote myself and my energy to it. In the end, what else will matter but that I loved what I did with my life and that I inspired others to do the same?

Also, I am reminded now of the value of learning for learning's sake. I constantly pursue new knowledge. I am invigorated by discovery, I am enlightened by challenge, and I am broadened by study. For 48 students to walk into this camp solely to learn new things is truly inspiring, because I think in the hunt for the material--be it a job, an amount of money, a car, a house, or even a degree--we often forget that the human mind is most satisfied when learning is pure. Is it not the true purpose of education to teach us to think, to aspire, to dream, and to achieve? If we have tunnel-vision in all things, I think we limit our potential, and this pure learning reminds me of that.

After all that, I am reminded of the wonders which are revealed when we seek help. Students are continuously immersed in an environment which begs them to ask questions--it is by the very nature of a learning institution that they should--but we condition them to fear being wrong. Through such fear, they also avoid being perceived as ignorant, when really, ignorance is our greatest blessing! Were it not for my ignorance, there would be nothing in the world to learn, and were there nothing in the world to learn, there would be no reason to rise each day. These kids, in their quest for pure learning, based on pure passion, proved to me every day that asking questions, seeking help, and desiring ever more knowledge is a truly higher path to satisfaction.
Many of us moan that we long for the joy of childhood...when really I think that joy lies in their curiosity. For all our technology, let us not forget that the world is still large, even when it is small, and that by wanting to know, and by being willing to ask, we can have all the joy and wonder of childhood and more.

For me, it was an incredibly sad day to leave the museum not at the head of a group of middle-school students. I realized that I was walking away from a fountain of imagination, passion, enthusiasm, and energy that I will struggle in the future to find again. No experience can ever be quite like the first, and I know that even though I will love subsequent years in this camp, I will always remember the Science Camp of 2010.

Thank you to Bernard Harris, the Harris Foundation, ExxonMobil, Texas Tech, the TTU T-STEM center, Beccy, Pat, Jana and all the staff, my fellow counselors Becca, Susan, Joey, Sam, Ellen, Laura, Patrick, Matt, Greg, Kayla and Scott, and to all the parents who supported this endeavor. But more than any of them, thank you students from across the South Plains, who made this experience beyond memorable--you have inspired me, motivated me, and encouraged me to always be exactly who and what I should be: a child at heart, fascinated by and interested in the world around me, moved to action only by my love for action.

May your future contain all the wonder of the world and more, and I desperately hope that you never lose your passion for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, nor most of all, life.

Dunte Hector

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