For McKenna Vernon, the moment of truth came as she pulled on the first pair of waders she’d ever worn and stepped tentatively into New Hope Creek to collect water samples.

Vernon, then a sophomore at Durham School of the Arts, had always loved science and math. They were her best and favorite subjects at school. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in a STEM field – one where she could put her stellar math skills to use, and possibly one focused on the environment.

But this whole wading into a muddy creek thing? She wasn’t so sure.

“While I had an interest in environmental science, I had never had positive experiences with the outdoors,” Vernon, now a freshman majoring in environmental engineering at Duke, recalled. “That was the one thing that made me hesitant.”

Luckily, her first foray into field work went, well, swimmingly, and by the time she and her fellow students in the Environmental Science Summer Program (ESSP) had collected their samples, she was hooked.

“ESSP gave me the opportunity to explore my interest in science outside of a traditional classroom,” said Vernon, who plans to focus her career on finding solutions to water pollution. “Once I got into the creek, my entire attitude changed. I had a great time testing the water and measuring the creek. That experience gave me an idea of what being in the field would involve and played a significant role in my deciding to continue studying environmental science.”

Vernon’s self-affirming experience, though unique to her, mirrors what more than 270 other Durham-area high school students have experienced as ESSP participants since the Nicholas School first launched the program in 2012.