CLAREMONT — It’s the last day of Camp Invention at Disnard Elementary School, and the kids are getting ready to race “orbots.” Fifth grade teacher Katey Wachsman floats through the classrooms and keeps things organized, remembering what items go home with which kids and resolving any problems.
Teacher Brianna Calderon has the race course set up, and the kids have 10 minutes to test their orbots.
The children range from ready to enter kindergarten to ready to enter sixth grade. Camp Invention, a STEM summer program launched by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, uses hands-on activities like the orbot race to get children used to concepts and practices in science, tech, engineering and mathematics.
The kids have one minute to get their “orbot” through the “Ring of Fire” obstacle course, using a remote controller. In the beginning of the week, they took the orbots apart and learned all the pieces. Then, they put them together.
“When it comes to engineering, a lot of these kids don’t have any background on how things work,” said Wachsman. “If you ask them how their remote control car works, they say, ‘You push the button.’ Now, they can explain how the antenna talks to the circuit board, and it makes sense to them.”
“What if we don’t want to make any changes to ours?” asks Liam Wachsman.
“That’s okay,” says Calderon, “but you might want to test it. You still have 10 minutes.”
Camp Invention comes in a series of boxes, with the pieces and parts for each activity and instructions for the teachers. This activity, the DIY Orbot, provides tools and pieces for assembling their orbots as well as the obstacle course.
The kids put finishing touches on their creations, including popsicle-stick decorations, feathers, hats, and googley eyes.
“Get your remote and get with the group that shares your frequency,” Calderon tells them. Each team shares a remote; the kids take turns using it to steer their orbots.
Two orbots engage in a battle near the foam barrier to the race course, prompting Calderon to remind the children only one orbot on their team should be turned on.
Two children are assigned to keep score sheets: for every obstacle they successfully navigate, they get points. For instance, if their orbot knocks down a pyramid of paper cups, they get 100 points.
The race begins. The kids holding the remotes frown with concentration, sending their orange orbots skittering toward the obstacles, while their teammates cheer loudly.
Down the hall, fifth grade teacher Tiffany Young presides over another group of inventions. In this activity, the kids build boats from styrofoam trays, tape and popsicle sticks. They float them in a pool and test their seaworthiness by adding steel washers (“passengers”) to the boats.
Michael is in the lead, having been able to add 100 passengers to his boat. Harmony (84) and Owen (78) have also produced seaworthy vessels: styrofoam trays (such as you would find under a pound of hamburger) with popsicle stick masts and additional styrofoam features.
Carter declines to try his boat, saying a friend told him “it won’t work because popsicle sticks don’t float.” However, with some encouragement from the teachers, he puts his invention, a raft made of popsicle sticks, in the water.
It floats. He looks down at it in surprise, then smiles.
Other inventions have perhaps questionable features, such as holes in the decks made by popsicle sticks. But the spirit of Camp Invention is to let the kids try things, make mistakes, and learn from them.
“If it sinks then you get to see if that’s not something you’re going to do again,” says Young. “Rut-roh ... it’s close to going under.”
Isaiah looks at his boat and adds passengers on the port side. It’s been listing to starboard. With better balance, it makes it to 40 passengers.
The camp seeks to create “a safe and fun space to create, test, try, fail and discover” inventing. Kids are encouraged to use teamwork (and even get points for it in the obstacle course) and come up with their own solutions to problems. The teachers are hands-off as much as they can be; they let the kids fail, and then coach them to learn from mistakes.
“My favorites were the DIY Orbots and the farming,” says Harmony. The Farm Tech activity programmed a robot to hatch an egg, and the kids explored groundwater cleanup technology. They even sold their eggs and grew their farm businesses with the Moola they earned. The Deep Sea Mystery taught the kids about a living fossil, coelecanths, once thought to have been extinct for 65 million years.
This is the first year Disnard has run the camp, with three teachers and 23 kids. Wachsman and the other teachers are already looking to next summer, when they may be able to add helpers from the high school.
After the kids went to clean up the boat activity, Young said, “My favorite part was Deep Sea Mystery — the kids got to dig for fossils. I like that children get to do things they normally would not do in the classroom.”