COURTESY PHOTO | Students engaged in a chemistry lab during the 2012 SigmaCamp program at Camp Quinipet. Most who participated last summer returned for a second time while the program has expanded from 45 to 72 campers.
On June 22, 75 young students descended on Shelter Island for a week of intensive scientific experimentation. SigmaCamp, housed at Camp Quinipet, has students engaged in chemistry, DNA studies, physics, biology, photography and cryptology as well as a host of typical camp activities, including art, music, swimming, movies and games.
The professional laboratory equipment they’re using, provided by the academics and scientists leading the program, is unlike anything the students typically use in high school classrooms, according to program organizer Victoria Bershadsky.
What brings the students together for the week-long program is a deep interest in science and technology that they generally don’t get to share with their classmates back home, Ms. Bershadsky said.
Observing them in the various laboratories, she added, it’s evident they are truly engaged, ask probing questions of their counselors and really want to know how and why things work as they do.
“The program aims to show children how deeply the different branches of human knowledge are connected to each other. The students encounter problems that cannot be solved without realizing the links between mathematics and art, chemistry and literature, physics and history.
This second year of the program has seen an expansion in the student population that had 45 enrollees last summer. Only two of last year’s campers didn’t return and a program expansion from 44 to 75 made room for several new campers.
“I had this dream to start this for many years,” Elena Yakubovskaya said. “Friends just jumped into my adventure,” she said. The level of professionalism the counselors exhibit and the involvement of the campers creates a unique atmosphere for learning, she said.
“It’s the counselors’ program, not ours,” Ms. Yakubovskaya said. Faculty are academics and scientists from Stony Brook, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a few other universities along with scientists from BNL and Renaissance Technologies who volunteer their vacation time to work at the camp.
Campers come from all over the United States and from other countries, including Canada, France and Slovakia and they get into the program by scoring well on a qualifying examination, Ms. Bershadsky said. Parents pay the $800 tuition cost, but there is a little scholarship aid available for those who find the cost prohibitive.
Campers have to pass a rigid qualifying test unless they are winners of a monthly problem solving challenges that appear on the SigmaCamp website at SigmaCamp.org. Winners get a priority listing of their applications to attend the camp and don’t have to take the qualifying test. Problem solving questions are open to any student seeking a challenge, whether or not they want to attend the camp program.
There’s always a waiting list, according to camp director Tatiana Portnaya.
One interest outside of the labs that grabbed students last summer was chess and they organized their own tournament. This summer there are soccer, volleyball, ping pong and even Trivial Pursuit tournaments, Ms. Bershadsky said.
Cellphones and other electronics are prohibited except for a brief period each evening when campers are allowed to call home.
The summer camp program is an outgrowth of SchoolNova, a program launched in 2002 by Stony Brook University faculty members and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists who sought a way of sparking their own children’s interest in science, math and technology.
If the summer program seems intensive to the outside observer, those engaged in organizing it have a definite sense of humor as demonstrated by their instructions about preparations families must make to pick campers up between 9 and 11 a.m. on the last day of the encampment.
“All campers must be picked up before 11 a.m. After 11a.m., any remaining campers will be packed into boxes together with lab equipment and shipped away until the next year.”