Camp Quest June 22-28 2014, Kansas City, MO

Story by Tom Gray, Youth Group Leader

We're back from Camp Quest! A full week of Freethought, space science (the theme), philosophy and summer fun. The days were packed!

While Camp Quest has been around since 2006 and has 17 camps around the world, this was only the second Camp Quest in the Midwest. Last year we had 19 campers - this year we had 31.

Five campers attended from Omaha (Michaela, Eva, Lexi, Annika and Roslyn) and I was a cabin counselor as well as other duties.

I was part of the team that taught astronomy, cosmology and rocketry. We saw Saturn and its rings through a reflector telescope and each camper built and flew model rockets. It was a windy day and we lost about 1/4 of them to the trees. We discussed videos on the moon landing, Challenger disaster, International Space Station and Mars rover. The Challenger was much harder to talk about than I expected. We did "astronomy with a stick" by marking the shadow cast by the sun over several days and drew Kepler's orbital paths (ellipses) using a loop of string and campers as the two foci and as the planet. For added fun we had another camper play the role of the planet's moon. It turned into dizzy, silly fun as they tried to maintain the correct relative positions and orbital velocities!

We did a daily Socrates Cafe where we used the Socratic method (teaching by questioning) to explore different issues. We let the campers suggest topics and choose between 3/day.

  • "What is knowledge?"

  • "What is death?"

  • "What gives 'profane words' their power?"

  • "What would the discovery of extraterrestrial life mean for mankind?"

  • "What is Justice?"

  • "What is the nature of sexuality and gender?"

The daily routine included:

  • Wake up

  • Breakfast

  • Morning Movement: Choice of calisthenics, martial arts or hiking

  • Educational program

  • Art/Crafts

  • Lunch

  • Socrates Café

  • Recreation: Choice of swimming, archery, blowguns, slingshot, 3D printing

  • Cabin cleanup/Back on Bunks time

  • Supper

  • Invited Speaker

  • Social Time

  • Campfire

  • Skygazing

The teen campers did another hour of discussion after the younger campers went to bed. They tackled some very difficult topics including body image, sexuality and consent. Their parents would be proud of the mature, honest way they presented their opinions and handled their disagreements. I wish there had been a group like this when I was a teen!

We had great speakers! Topics included acceptance and bullying, astronomy and library resources. I led one on 3d printing and gave a demo. Several campers spent their recreational time with me learning the CAD (computer aided design) software and printing rockets, a Dalek and the Lunar Lander.

I think the best speaker was "Dr. John" who spent 25 years practicing on an Indian reservation. John described the evidence for the migration of humans across the Bering Strait 20,000 years ago and how the arrival of Europeans 500 years ago and their colonization of North America were a catastrophe for the Native Americans. He discussed stereotypes we have about Native Americans (who call themselves "Indians"). He said that the greatest single threat to the health of his adopted tribe isn't alcohol, as we'd expect from the "drunken Indian" stereotype, but the use of tobacco. In many Indian cultures tobacco is used as a sacrament to carry prayers to the creator. John realized that he couldn't take the position that tobacco was "evil". Instead he had some success getting the tribe to cut down on smoking by arguing that smoking a pack of Marlboros a day was a Catholic getting drunk on communion wine or gorging on wafers. He also has an interest in "ethnopharmacology" (use of plants as medicine in native cultures) and described successfully using snake root to treat a young girl's scalp wound. The campers had many questions about pow wows and the various dances the tribes perform. John's daughter grew up on the reservation and did Fancy Dancing in competition. Dances for other occasions include Jingle Dress, Buffalo Dance, Ghost Dance and Sun Dance. The Sun Dance is particularly interesting because it's traditionally done to "keep the universe from flying apart". It included flesh-sacrifice through the extremely painful practice of 'piercing'. Two folds of skin on the chest of a young man were pierced with a stick and he spent a night walking in an arc and pulling against a leather thong tied to a tree. The next morning his back was pierced and a length of thong was tied to four buffalo skulls. His task was to run away from the skulls and rip the piercings through his skin. This religious practice seems quite extreme to those of us with humanist and rationalist views. Most Indian ceremonies and attitudes are much more positive. Their practice of allowing the elderly to die at home surrounded by their family seems preferable to our culture's habit of keeping death hidden in hospitals.

By the end of the week the campers (and staff!) had made many friends and been exposed to new ideas, ticks, and too much sun.

Planning is already underway for next year. Sign me up!!


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