College students forgo traditional spring break to help kids connect with science

Inspiring young scientists in the woods

Our series, A More Perfect Union, aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we meet a pair of college students who used their spring break for a greater purpose. While millions of students descended on beaches, two science majors from the University of Miami traveled to a Northern California camp to share their enthusiasm for science with a younger generation.

Deep in Northern California's Redwoods, CBS News' Mireya Villarreal met science majors Neha Aitharaju and Lily Acheampomaa-Piasare. They've stepped out of their quiet chemistry lab at the University of Miami and into the noisy, rainy forest looking to inspire young campers.

Neha Aitharaju   CBS News

The temperature hovers around 40 degrees but the campers don't seem to notice. The kids are learning how to identify beetles and larvae while gaining insight into water ecosystems.

Each year, nearly 7,000 preteens gather at Camp Campbell to study science in the woods. Many of their families don't have the money for camp so these trips are paid for with YMCA funds.

"There is this new generation of kids who are ready to accept new ideas in a way that I think adults sometimes struggle with," Neha said.   

Lily said she's "absolutely terrified" of snakes, but when one of her campers was scared to hold one, she was inspired to step up.

"I did not even think I could do something like that, honestly," Lily said.  "But again I know that like Haley, my camper, she was scared as well and I knew that if I did it, she would do it. So like I have to do it for her."  

The redwoods are new ground for 22-year-old Lily, originally from Ghana. Her parents left behind the comforts of a close-knit family with the hope of finding a better life for Lily and her sister in America.

CBS News

"Back in Ghana, you know like, my uncle lived right next door and my grandmother was across the street," she said. "In Ghana it's very much a male-dominated society and so I think being here I've sort of, like, owned what it means to be a woman, and I know the experiences I have here are not the same experiences that I would have had back there."

She said the "alternative breaks" have helped her realize how much bigger the world is than her.

"I've been exposed to communities that I honestly would never have been exposed to if I hadn't gotten outside that comfort zone," she said. "I've learned that you have to care about people. And you can't care about people if you don't know the people out there."

At science camp, every activity teaches about the natural world. There's even a song about the droppings bears leave behind.

"And they just always attack every day with such great enthusiasm. And that really sort of inspires me as well," Lily said.

Their enthusiasm for science has both Lily and Neha on the road to becoming pediatricians. And they agree that giving up their spring break to give back to kids will have a lasting impact.

"It's just something you can't explain when you're working with kids.  And there's like this innocence and – I don't even know how to explain it. It's just amazing," Neha said.