November 21, 2016

Figuring out what you want to do in and after college is hard, especially when you're in high school. Sure there are advisers, mentors and internet quizzes to help, but one camp at Texas A&M helps kids explore their passions before they get to college. That camp is the Youth Adventure Program (YAP). Operated through the College of Education and Human Development, YAP welcomes students from all over the world who want to experience college before they apply. Students can take courses in forensics, veterinary medicine, broadcast media and many other fields. These courses help them find the answer to what they want to do and who they want to be, and for some, the result is far beyond what they ever imagined. Listen to the podcast below to learn more.  

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Podcast Transcript

Monika Blackwell: So… what are they doing today?

Adrienne Brundage: So today is their final crime scene, they’ve spent all week learning all the different aspects of forensic science and each team, they now have to work a crime scene where they use everything they’ve learned this week to solve a murder… or three... There’s three murders.

MB: I’m in the Minnie Bell Heep Building on Texas A&M’s campus watching high schoolers solve crimes. Crimes committed by their professor Adrienne Brundage! No, not really.

These aren’t real crimes. But at the Texas A&M Youth Adventure Program--or YAP--they might as well be. YAP brings in high schoolers from around the world to explore potential majors and career paths they could follow if they enroll at Texas A&M. The students stay in residence halls and work with Texas A&M professors in campus classrooms. During part of their summer vacation, they get the full college learning experience. Riley Johnson, a high school freshman enrolled in the YAP forensics course, walked me through her investigation.

MB: What’s your case today?

Riley Johnson: We’re trying to figure out who killed this guy… real specific aren’t I?

MB: Before I arrived, students stood on a walkway overlooking the foyer of the Heep Building. From there, they spilled red paint onto white paper to learn about blood spatter.

RJ: We’re trying to figure out how long he’s been dead, who killed him, why he was killed, where the missing witnesses are…

MB: Riley’s also learning about DNA tests, fingerprints, and…

RJ: Calculating how old maggots are… which is always lovely.

MB: That’s pretty disgusting.

RJ: “Yeah.”

MB: YAP isn’t all dirty field work. In addition to forensics, the program offers courses in engineering, construction science, architecture, and broadcast media--just to name a few. The list is actually pretty exhaustive, and that’s intentional. YAP wants to help kids figure out what they want to do before they’re in college. YAP’s Director, Dr. Robert Woodward, or “Dr. Jay” as most people call him, says there’s a huge demand for that. Take the veterinary medicine course, for instance. 

Robert Woodward: You know our veterinary medicine class is very very popular, we always have students every single year say: "I want to take a Vet Med II, I want to go back." But because the popularity of vet med there's no way to do kind of a second version of that because we have a long waiting list every year and so we kind of do that same course, but that's where our animal science class was born from. We kind of branded that class as from farm to fork, what goes through raising animals and then dairy cattle or dairy goats all the way to meat, livestock, how that works and getting students kind of in tune and it’s a very different audience--your FFA kids, those kids that raise and show. That is a huge major here at A&M and it was a great get for our program offers a very different glimpse of animal care that goes beyond just the medical aspects, it goes through all aspects of livestock raising and production.”

MB: Those varied experiences help students get excited about their future, and the benefits are so widely known that YAP attracts students from around the world.

I met Diamond Blanks, who is one of those students.

Diamond Blanks: I go to school in California - Etiwanda. (~1 minute into Mono 005)

MB: You came all the way from California for this?

DB: Yeah, kinda.

MB: When I caught up with Dr. Jay later, he told me students have come from as far away as Australia, England, Japan and even Kuwait. After YAP, students like Diamond go back to their high schools and experience what Dr. Jay called “the splashdown effect.”

Robert Woodward: Once they attend a program like this it increases their motivation and persistence when they go back to their own school because they see this as a tangible, realistic, attainable goal. They've come to a college campus, they've done college work and now they see themselves filling that role and being able to go through and accomplish what they need to in high school so they can attain that for themselves.

MB: YAP courses move at a whirlwind pace. Sometimes students have a crash course in what is basically a semester’s worth of material crammed into one week. That forensics exercise? That’s something undergraduate Texas A&M students do after 15 weeks of preparation. YAP kids have only five days.     

RW: The students don’t come and take a day in each one of those courses, rather, they pick a specialized area of emphasis and stay in that course for the entire week. And it really allows them to really have a hands-on investigative look at what that potential career or college major would be like if they got to Texas A&M.

MB: Getting into YAP is a challenge. There’s a lot of competition, courses fill up every summer, and there’s even a waitlist. That’s because YAP class sizes are small, a fact Dr. Jay says makes the program even more beneficial to the students.

RW: “If you’ve got a class of 60 you can’t really do much as far as experiential learning because you’re trying to manage a large group and labs, demonstrations, activities become problematic—not everyone gets a turn, being able to see something or do something, you know those kids who are more assertive who kind of get that experience, rather, we keep these classes very small. The largest class that we operate for YAP is 24 that’s what we cap it at. And that allows for the maximization of instructor-to-student ratio and the program with the special activities that can give these kids what they’re looking for.”

MB: Part of what those students are looking for is a chance to see what it’s like being a Texas A&M student and how it feels to be in college. Dr. Jay told me that exploring these fields of study beforehand helps cut down on students who change their majors later on—something that saves time and money, and has a cascading effect on student success.

RW: One of the biggest pushes now in the College of Education and Human Development with our new dean is access--giving access to underrepresented populations, and these high-impact educational experiences such as YAP, these enrichment opportunities don't need to be for those can afford them, they need to be for everyone who would benefit from them.

MB: Only some YAP students receive partial scholarships to help cover tuition for the week, and many work summer jobs to make up the difference. But Dr. Jay says more can be done to make YAP accessible to greater numbers of students.

RW: “And so we've cast as wide a net as possible for students who can attend YAP but the net could be wider if we had financial backing and funding to offer more in the area of scholarships.” “You go back maybe first in family who have never set foot on a college campus before and the parents are kind of in awe about the size, never set foot in a dorm before, never gone to a college classroom and this is an invaluable not only enrichment opportunity but life opportunity it could change someone's career path and trajectory”

MB: Many students who come through the program get a glimpse of a future they may not have considered. For Matthew Bowen… that was exactly the case.

Matthew started as a YAP camper who, at the time, was exploring the idea of studying medicine. But after participating in the program for a couple summers, he realized he was drawn to something else: YAP itself.

Matthew Bowen: “Funnily enough I was laying in my dorm room which is where we stayed for camp and I just realized that the passion of my life was at YAP and I knew from there that I wanted to stay involved with YAP for as long as I possibly could. I've always loved teaching people too so I kind of figured the best of both worlds would be to somehow retain my relationship with YAP and become a professor at the University so I could kind of have my passion of teaching and my passion of YAP so I could kind of stay on the track for as long as I could.

MB: Matthew became a counselor, and now he’s a President’s Endowed Scholar majoring in psychology at Texas A&M. This year, he also served as the Recruiting Director for YAP, and he’s hoping to continue with the program while he pursues his masters at A&M in educational psychology.

Bowen: One of my campers, I'll never forget this, I had told her my story and how I had this one really amazing counselor that I had always looked up to--her name was Viki and at the end of the week she comes up to me and says "Matthew, I just want you to know you're like my Viki" and that just meant the world to me and I'll never forget that moment.

MB: It may sound hokey... All kids wish summer camp would last forever. But for many kids who go through the Youth Adventure Program, the impact of their time on campus can last forever. And if they’re still not sure what they want to be when they grow up, they can always come back next year.

For the Texas A&M Foundation and “The Sound of the Spirit,” I’m Monika Blackwell. This episode was produced by Davis Land and me.

For more information on the Youth Adventure Program, visit

To support the program, visit or contact Jody Ford at

Music by Blue Dot Sessions and David Szesztay.