Helping students find their passion in science through a one-of-a-kind learning experience

A group of students in outdoor gear stands and sits on rocky terrain at a mountain summit. They are smiling at the camera with snowy peaks and a cloudy sky in the background. The group appears to be enjoying a break during their hike, making it both an adventurous learning experience and a passion in science.

Andrew DeWitt found his career inspiration at the Hudsonville Summer Science Institute and now helps other students find their career path as an instructor
By: Andrew DeWitt, Director of  Environmental Services

Before I went into consulting, I wanted to become a science teacher. Growing up, I had some incredible teachers and coaches who played a major part in shaping who I am today. I’m extremely grateful for those mentors and wanted to give back to the next generation by helping young professionals find their career path. I have been an instructor for the Hudsonville Summer Science Institute (SSI) since 2017 and am passionate about helping students find their path within science-related careers. Growing up in West Michigan, I am also an SSI alumnus, and this course and the great instructors are the reasons I pursued a degree in geology and biology. 

SSI is an integral part of high-quality science curriculum at Hudsonville High School – located in west Michigan – since its inception in 1977. The program offers 26 highly motivated high school seniors an opportunity to study the relationships between geology and ecology within the amazing state and national parks across the United States. I co-lead the program with Chris Bolhuis, who has been leading the program for 22 years – including when I was a student – and took over for his dad who started the program.

A group of young adults poses together on rocky terrain with snowy mountains in the background. They are dressed in hiking attire. The caption below the image reads, "SSI students spend three weeks traveling across the country, sharing their passion in science while studying, hiking, and tent camping together.

A high school course devoted to science 

Each year, we hand-pick the class from over 85 applicants through a very competitive application process, interviews, and reviews from at least five other teachers or coaches in the school district. Selected students get to study science in Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, Devils Tower National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Glacier National Park, among others. And they aren’t allowed to bring their cell phones! 

SSI students spend three weeks traveling across the country and studying, hiking, tent camping, and meal prepping together. Most instruction occurs within a park in a natural setting where actual geologic and ecological processes and formations are evident. Students complete daily assignments, daily quizzes, and essays as they travel, and they must pass a comprehensive final exam in to receive a high school science credit for the course. The students also spend some time doing volunteer work – usually at Yellowstone National Park – such as painting bridges, building horse fences, or removing debris.

A group of people in bright yellow vests stand together posing for a photo in a wooded area, holding shovels and various tools. They appear to be volunteers. Caption: "SSI students at Yellowstone National Park after a passion-filled learning experience, sweeping a bridge and patching potholes.

There are many students who go on to pursue college degrees in ecology, biology, environmental science, or geology. I use my experience in environmental consulting to bridge the gap between the science behind the natural features the students learn about, and why they are important from a project permitting or capital project delivery perspective. I also help students better understand the career paths that are available to them. 

Supporting STEM education 

To my knowledge, there isn’t another course like this out there for high school seniors. Not only are the students gaining valuable, hands-on experiences to help them in their career journey, but they truly get to discover themselves. They push themselves on 22-mile hikes in the mountains, learn what it means to be part of a team, and build relationships with others who they may not otherwise have.

I feel incredibly lucky to be part of this program and to work for a company that understands the importance of SSI for students. Through Atwell Gives, we sponsor one student to attend each year, provide scholarships for students who pursue degrees related to our service offerings, contribute financially to the program’s general fund, and commit to hiring two paid interns from the program at Atwell each year.  

It’s incredibly important to support science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Here at Atwell, we take pride in providing creative and sustainable solutions to support our clients’ needs and goals. Successfully doing so requires skills in critical thinking, communication, working collaboratively, and “thinking outside the box.” STEM education provides students with the tools to do those things.  

The students participating in SSI each year represent our future. They will be our clients, our employees, and our educators. Atwell’s support of SSI shows their commitment to supporting STEM education and investing in our future leaders.