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A look into their futures: McDowell County middle schoolers explore careers at Camp Opportunity

Rising sixth grader AJ Mainer sat over a laptop with a circuit connected to a littleBits LED matrix. The grid lit up in different patterns that Mainer controlled through code.

The activity was part of the “gizmos and gadgets” session at Camp Opportunity, a free summer camp for middle schoolers hosted by McDowell Technical Community College in partnership with McDowell County Schools. The four-day camp, held June 17-20, allowed students to select and explore a career path each day with hands-on activities in a range of subject areas.

Mainer had signed up for gizmos and gadgets out of a love for video games. He even plans on having his own YouTube channel.

“It’s going to be like let’s plays, walk-throughs, and maybe live reactions and stuff,” he said.

One surprising thing he appreciates video games for?

“They taught me how to read,” he said.

Jared Parker, a student at McDowell Early College with interests in computer and software engineering, volunteered at gizmos and gadgets and at another camp session, networking and IT. 

“I like that they’re learning the coding stuff, because that’s the stuff that I like. And I already know a bunch of it, so I was really able to help some of the kids,” Parker said of working with the middle schoolers.

“That’s where everything is headed, so I think that if they can at least get a good grasp of [coding], especially early on, it’s going to be really helpful for them in the future,” he said.

Rising sixth grader AJ Mainer works with a littleBits coding kit. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Down the steps from the gizmos and gadgets session, another group of middle schoolers practiced flying drones, even perfecting a mid-air flip.

“You get to learn what kind of wires and what kind of batteries they take and what’s in the controller to connect to the drones,” said Colin Ivy, a rising seventh grader at West Middle School, who actually has five drones of his own at home.

Instructor Garrett Berryhill, an employee in McDowell County School’s technology department, also got into drones outside of work, at first by building his own and then with a side business in aerial photography. Now, it’s mostly a hobby — especially with his drone racing. (Yes, that’s a thing.

Students flying a drone at Camp Opportunity. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

For the students at camp, Berryhill focused his teaching not only on having fun with drones but also on what career opportunities exist with skilled use of drones.

“Pretty much anything you can think of,” Berryhill said. “They’ve become really important for law enforcement, fire rescue, agriculture, mapping, surveying, [and] obviously the film industry.”

Beverly Watts, director of developmental studies at McDowell Tech, spearheaded the camp from its start. She said having students know about the actual jobs behind their interests is what the camp is all about.

“We’re in a very rural, somewhat poor county, and they don’t have these opportunities,” Watts said. “So we thought, ‘What a perfect name. Call it Camp Opportunity’ [since] we give students a chance to explore different careers.”

Camp Opportunity wrapped its fifth year this summer. Watts said that over the past five years, the camp gave students the chance to explore around 35 different career options through partnership with McDowell Tech and McDowell High School’s CTE programs. 

“We highlight programs that are available both at the high school and the college, but then I also highlight some of those careers that are out in the community,” she said. “I pull in forestry. We’re also going to have students go do wildlife management, so we will actually send them out to Lake James State Park. We’ve had dairy farming, because we actually have dairy farming in this area, and they’re making a living at it.”

To get an idea of the breadth of fields students explore, here’s a list of this year’s 29 different session descriptions

The buttons created by rising seventh grader Kevin Rodriguez in the graphic design session. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

For Kevin Rodriguez, a rising seventh grader at West McDowell Middle School, Camp Opportunity served as a chance to just try something new. On the first day of camp, he’d tested his hand at graphic design, selecting symbols that meant something to him like a soccer ball, Nike, NASA, NFL, and FIFA.

After pulling the logos into Adobe Illustrator, Rodriguez used press machines to turn his paper printouts into shiny buttons. And for the remainder of the week, Rodriguez said he signed up for game art and design, gizmos and gadgets, and networking and IT.

“I’m just looking,” he said. “Just to find out what I might like to do in the future.”

Rising sixth grader Jason Comar already had two career goals in mind: becoming a chemist or a video game designer. So on the first day of camp, he tried his hand at board game design, basing his inspiration on one of his favorites: Monopoly Gamer Mario Kart. 

“It’s mostly that you get to make your own board game and make it however you want,” Comar said of what he enjoyed about the process. The following day, he’d explore his other possible career path, chemistry.

Watts said this is one key way Camp Opportunity is different than a career fair, where students may only get to briefly visit informational booths.

“Everything’s supposed to be hands on to give them that chance to really dive into a career,” Watts said. “We have them concentrate on a career per day where they can spend 4-5 hours and dive into it and really learn about it.”

Through this exploration, Watts said students could then make better choices about what classes to take in high school. And five years in the running, she said some students find themselves at McDowell Tech in a field they were introduced to at Camp Opportunity, like cosmetology. 

“We have the machining, the automotive. We have construction and masonry. We have welding,” Watts said of the camp’s offerings. “Then you have the other side: the art, the culinary. You’re getting all the sides of the brain to kind of work together, and some of them find out that you can pair or marry two of those activities together and you can actually have a job.”

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Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.