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Robots, Loud Bangs, and Jelly Beans, Oh My!

When kids go to camp, their parents or grandparents don’t usually go with them.

But this past weekend of July 30, they turned up at Washington and Lee University.

The 16 families, totaling 51 people, were on the W&L campus this weekend for the University’s inaugural Family Adventure Program designed specifically for alumni and their children or grandchildren, ages six to 14.

W&L has a reputation as a pioneer in the field of alumni educational experiences, both on-campus alumni colleges and educational travel, and Rob Fure, director of special programs, believes this is the first time a college has offered such a program on campus.

Always on the lookout for new ways of attracting alumni to campus, Fure explained that some alumni expressed a desire to attend the week-long alumni colleges but put it off until their children were old enough to lead their own lives. “With this program they no longer have to wait,” he said.

Jim Sagner, a 1962 W&L graduate from New York, came with his daughter and her three children, “This was entirely my idea,” he said. “And it’s only three days. I think it’s a good idea because the kids get to do stuff they can’t do in school – where they don’t have the level of faculty expertise or the equipment. They are enjoying it.”

For this inaugural year W&L is concentrating on science. “There’s definitely a gee-whiz aspect to science today and we want to give families the opportunity to explore it together, with the idea that science is best learned by doing it,” said Fure.

David Harcus of the Class of 1984, from North Carolina, attended with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Faith, and said he was attracted to the scientific aspect of the program. “It’s an opportunity to expose my daughter to science in a family setting,” he said.

Eight W&L scientists conducted the two-day fun educational program. Most of the activities took place in the University’s Science Center with its state-of-the-art classrooms and labs.

Both young and old learned how to build a robot. They found out how to determine if a DNA sample is from a human or a dog, and even took a sample of their own DNA home. They mixed chemicals and watch the reactions.

An expert on the sense of smell showed there’s more to smell than meets the nose, as families tasted jelly beans and tracked the wild chocolate truffle.

In the psychology lab, families explored how the mind works, how it often makes mistakes, and how this affects their behavior.

They learned how light behaves by bending and shaping it to create images, and found out how light is harnessed in useful technologies.

They went on a field trip to the countryside to see what rocks can show about the history of the earth.

Fure said that the parents’ pleasure was significantly due to the children’s excitement of learning.

“It’s not just an educational experience for the kids,” he said, “it’s also a deeply involved introduction to W&L. But it’s also a very convivial experience, like a camp, where both kids and adults get to know each other.”

W&L plans to focus on different areas of academic life each year. In 2010 it will all be about music. Rhythm, melody and youthful enthusiasm, anyone?

Watch a video with interviews of participants: