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Backpacking for a week last summer, Elizabeth Guffey had an enlightening experience - nature, all around her, is vast and complex.

“I had never really thought about so much of what is all around us in nature; there is so much to study, and now I am much more aware of these things,” Guffey, now 18, said. From tree canopy patterns to salamander habitats, the outdoors of Western North Carolina are a science experiment waiting to unfold. “Backpacking has its own culture, and I learned so much about how you do it,” she said. “I had mostly car camped for shorter periods, and this was much more involved and so different.”

One of several young participants from the Swannanoa Valley and from across the state, Guffey took part in the Millennial Youth Led Expeditions program (MYLES), funded through the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Part of an outreach program of Montreat College, the program is funded through next summer. Costs are about $300 per student (scholarships are available). Student applications may be submitted April through early June. Learn more at myles.montreat.edu.

Guffey loved the whole experience, from backpacking in the national park to studying the science of her surroundings to being with a close-knit group. “It’s really fun to take science out of the classroom,” she said.

The MYLES for Science Camp is different from science day camp programs that meet in colleges and schools. It is also different from youth expedition opportunities such as Outward Bound. Combining wilderness backpacking with science, staff members refer to the experience as “expeditionary science.” Students spend a week in a small group of students, hiking, camping and assisting park scientists with collecting field data. In the process, they get some experience in data collection and analysis.

In its second year, the program is meant to increase students’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies that might lead to a career in the sciences.

“With a chance to do real science, a student participant could complete a research project before graduating from high school. This is a nice addition to a college resume,” said Dottie Shuman, a Montreat College professor and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant liaison.

The term “STEM” is heard regularly in education circles now. It is also heard outside of the classroom, in after-school enrichment programs, Boy Scouts and science museum family programs, among other places.

One local school incorporating the STEM concept is Owen Middle. Its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) club is a product of the original Science Olympiad Club. The after-school student club has become very popular after just a few years, said club teacher representative Nicole Phelps.

“We saw a need for more investigation opportunities for our students and wanted to connect math to the process in a deeper and more meaningful way,” she said. Now it has become so large that staff are exploring ways to expand related after-school offerings.

At Owen Middle, projects addressing the American Chestnut, the Monarch butterfly and pond excavation have been incorporated into STEAM club activities. The school has connected with community members to create native pollinator beds and quilt gardens and to refurbish the overall landscape.

“In general, our school is embracing STEAM philosophy by uniting history of our native landscape with technology and good hard work in the outdoors,” Phelps said. (Read more about the OMS Natural Impact Initiative at buncombe.k12.nc.us/Page/50706.)

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