JODY WHITE scans an instrument panel that controls a 40-foot radiotelescope. It's not yet dawn, but Jody and eight other recent high school graduates are wide awake, listening for signals from Cassiopeia - a supernova 11,000 light-years from Earth. The students are learning about stars, galaxies, and other celestial radio sources as part of their three-week, all-expenses-paid stay at the National Youth Science Camp, a program that brings two outstanding high school students from each state and the District of Columbia to this 4-H camp in a mountainous corner of eastern West Virginia.
The students learn computer programming, laser optics, marine biology, mathematics, geology, astronomy, genetic chemistry, and more from visiting specialists and researchers. They also have time for rock climbing, kayaking, overnight camping, and hiking - outdoor skills that are just as important as academic skills, says camp director James Shuman.
``Climbing rocks takes self-confidence and that is one of the ways to encourage that,'' said Mr. Shuman, a science education instructor at Lesley College (Mass.), who attended the first youth science camp in 1963.
Shuman said science students often do not receive support from their peers or teachers because of the equipment and classroom limitations of high school, and the belief that academic achievers don't need extra help.
In college, a student tends to focus his or her interest on a particular field quickly, rather than getting a broad scientific education. They don't have time to explore, he explained.
``We really need to develop our young scientists by putting them in a supportive atmosphere and by exposing them to different aspects of science. We try to bring in people who can talk about the cutting edge of technology, and who are good communicators. That's important,'' Shuman said.
Seong Bang, a science camp delegate from Reno, Nev., who will attend Boston College this fall, made her first ascent up a rock face at nearby Seneca Rocks State Park with a group. While resting at the bottom, she related a story that explained the particular hurdles faced by bright science students. ``Coming up on the bus [from Charleston, W.Va.], these two guys were having this intense conversation about some obscure law of physics. If I were in any other group, people would say, `What dorks!' But here it seemed really normal.''
Siobhan Mannion, a first-time climber from Delaware, agreed. ``In school, if you talk about academics, people think you're crazy. People just agree with the teacher. I've been in more arguments about academic things at camp than all year.''
Susan Gottesman, a cancer researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., said introducing the students to complex ideas, like gene-splicing, will help them tackle harder subjects in college.
``I don't expect they could go home and write a clear story about it, but next time they hear it, genetic engineering will mean a whole lot more to them.''
Ms. Gottesman also said the camp's lab equipment gives students hands-on experience. ``Practicing science is very difficult in the classroom.''
With all the activities packed into three weeks, the daily schedule is hectic.
Wake up at 7:30 a.m., breakfast, then the first lecture at 9 a.m. on subjects like ``Gene Regulation,'' ``Fiber Optics for Lightwave Communications,'' or ``Human Robots.'' After lunch, students can choose from several outdoor trips, remain at the computer lab, or perhaps throw a Frisbee on the expansive camp lawn.
After dinner, a visiting scientist lectures under a huge shade tree while small groups leave camp for nighttime stargazing. Bedtime for these inquisitive 17- and 18-year-olds may not come until 11 o'clock.
This summer, students were also invited to use the telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility run by the National Science Foundation about 15 miles from camp. After an introductory tour, the group stayed overnight to track deep-space radio sources and to perform simple experiments for the resident astronomers.
Jody White and Daryl Scott updated the observatory's star charts. Using a computer, the two replotted the position of some 70 radio sources by comparing the stars' current position in relation to the Earth, to the position charted in 1950, the date when the charts were last updated.
``It wasn't too hard, we just plugged the numbers in,'' Daryl said. He's headed to Brigham Young University this fall.
Armed with the replotted star chart, sleeping bags, soda pop, and hand-held calculators, Daryl, Jody, and seven other campers returned to the observatory to track Cassiopeia and other deep-space radio sources with the NRAO's 40-foot radiotelescope. Cassiopeia didn't appear until 4:45 a.m.
``I was pretty tired, but I figure it was the only chance I had to use this telescope. Besides, I wouldn't have stayed up watching those silly blips if I wasn't interested,'' Jody said.
Jody, of Melbourne, Fla., said she wants to be an astronaut after completing her engineering and physics studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her father helps design solar concentrators for a space station and she grew up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral.
Camp director Shuman said the majority of science camp students go on to careers in scientific research or science education. About a third enter business or law, and several have ended up in high-level Foreign Service and other government positions. The science camp is funded by the state of West Virginia, the National Science Foundation, and corporate donations.
``These people are so capable of learning and retaining information that I liken them to sponges, they soak up information,'' he said.