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Think. Question. Grow.

Angie McQuaig

Volume 19.1, March 2009

Last summer, children and teens from across the nation convened for Camp Inquiry ’08, where they embarked upon a week of exploration, imagination, and critical thinking. Sponsored annually by the Institute at the Center for Inquiry and located at the sprawling and picturesque Camp Seven Hills in Holland, N.Y., Camp Inquiry promotes the tenets of skepticism and secular humanism through collaborative engagement in scientific inquiry and creative arts.

The universal ethical principles of respect, integrity, and responsibility constitute Camp Inquiry’s philosophical foundation and undergird daily activities and curricula. To kick off the week, campers articulated and adopted these mutually agreeable moral ideals when they collectively authored and signed their camp constitution. “We decided that we should show respect for ourselves, our fellow campers, camp counselors, the camp site, and others’ property,” they wrote after a group discussion of their values.

On the first full day of camp, kids and counselors considered the intersection of scientific inquiry, imagination, and the narratives that chronicle our perceptions of the world. After examining journal entries of preeminent thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin, campers began creating and collecting artifacts of their own, which they compiled into “inquirer’s notebooks” at the week’s end. In one such activity, campers constructed working pinhole cameras using black-painted oatmeal containers, golf tees, and photo paper onto which to capture and develop their own images of nature.

Between team sporting activities, water-balloon tosses, and shared meals in the rustic lodge, a number of special guests visited to facilitate an array of activities and interactive presentations. The week began with a focus on the elements of observation and the diversity of individual perspectives. Artist and educator Bruce Adams conducted a photographic art activity that focused kids’ imaginations on the pairing of evocative images and text, illustrating the power of our minds to make sense of the world and our place in it. Then, campers were treated to a talk by scientist Allison Hopper, who delivered a graphically-rich presentation about spirals in nature followed by a human reenactment of the big bang that, as the participant “particles” began spinning in unison, naturally resulted in the formation of a spiral of campers across the lawn. Adams and Hopper highlighted the human capacity for observation as the basis for scientific discovery, as well as an appreciation for the aesthetic splendor of the natural world.

With a focus on collaborative relationships, campers engaged with Musicians United for Superior Education in an introduction to the art of African drum and dance. Over the span of several days, campers learned and rehearsed a choreographed number that they performed for parents and guests during the closing ceremonies. In another teamwork-themed activity, campers were challenged to create an insulated “vehicle” that would protect a raw egg from cracking when dropped from a nearby bridge. Working within the constraints of a budget, kids selected from a variety of materials to create their landing modules and, as the project progressed, concluded that their best chance at success—and the candy bar prizes for intact eggs—was to collaborate, relying both on the disciplined approach of the scientific method and on the collective ingenuity of their teammates.

Campers dabbled in scientific discovery throughout the week, prompting discussions about the value of science as a method for understanding the universe and improving the human condition. A visit from the Buffalo Astronomical Association, complete with high-powered telescopes and demonstrations by astrophotographer Alan Friedman, sparked wonder and amazement, as well as contemplation of the origins of the universe and how humanists construct meaning without reliance on religious narratives.

Continuing the focus on scientific investigation, campers embarked on an outdoor hunt for the scattered bones of a small mammal, and having each found a section of its remains, teams gathered to assemble the bones and posit hypotheses about which animal they had discovered. Applying skeptical principles, participants suspended haphazard judgments about the identity of the skeleton and exercised inductivist methods for classifying the mystery species. Through careful examination of skeletal diagrams and protracted team discussions about the characteristics of various mammalian structures, campers concluded correctly: they had pieced together a rattus norvegicus. Other scientific explorations at camp included a fossil dig, a live-animal presentation by Nickel City Reptiles, and a spectacular physics show with visiting scientist David Willey.

Camp Inquiry focused youngsters’ attention on rational skepticism—the disposition of incredulity that calls for empirical evidence, rather than faith and other forms of uncritical thought, for the acceptance of a claim. And, in accordance with Carl Sagan’s seminal axiom, campers concluded that the more extraordinary the claim, the more cogent its evidentiary support must be. Venerable paranormal investigator Joe Nickell led an exploration of these principles, fascinating campers with an assortment of photos and stories of monsters, apparitions, aliens, mind-readers, and sundry pseudoscientific claims that he has examined throughout his career. Nickell narrated his investigative methodologies for each case, noting that he aims not simply to debunk; the scientific skeptic seeks verifiable and naturalistic explanations to mysterious claims rather than swift a priori dismissal based on ostensible implausibility.

Later, while the younger campers enjoyed the tales of storyteller Karima Amin, teens gathered in the pavilion for an open discussion of skepticism with D.J. Grothe, illusionist and host of Point of Inquiry. Campers examined the nature of skepticism as a kind of intellectual self-defense, as Grothe called it, against the bombardment of specious claims in our society. Campers shared the ways in which they apply critical evaluation to various facets of their lives, ranging from the assessment of teen-targeted advertising campaigns to the critique of religious precepts.

To conclude the evening, Grothe performed a magic show that left campers and counselors transfixed. Eager to learn his sleight-of-hand secrets, the audience paid close attention as Grothe revealed his method for making coins dramatically disappear and again materialize. Tricks that had initially seemed to onlookers as physical impossibilities were, by the conclusion of the demonstration, easily explainable by the basic principles of psychology and physics. Grothe and Nickell underlined the notion that a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied to epistemological and ontological claims that conflict with natural laws. However, as both speakers demonstrated, the skeptic regards factual knowledge as provisional and is open to new ideas and evidence uncovered by disciplined examination.

Camp Inquiry integrates the elements of a memorable camp experience for kids—roasted marshmallows, pillow fights, and new friendships—with the tenets of rational skepticism and secular humanism, including making ethical choices, taking naturalistic approaches to garnering knowledge, tapping into our boundless imaginations, and applying science and reason to human quests and dilemmas. It’s a place for children to think, question, and grow.

Angie McQuaig

Angie McQuaig's photo

Angie McQuaig, PhD, is a curriculum designer and Camp Inquiry director. Learn more about Camp Inquiry at campinquiry.org.