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No vacation from innovation at Camp Invention

Kids learn 'every aspect of science' at Sterling summer camp

STERLING – Welcome to Camp Invention, where Gracie Witmer is celebrating her eighth birthday, and 13-year-old Ben Lyman is giddily spending a few days of his summer vacation.

It’s a veritable smorgasbord of math and science. Don’t turn up your nose just yet, youngsters.

“This does not feel like schoolwork learning at all,” Ben said.

The campers built solar-powered crickets and battery-operated spiders. They’ve catapulted monkeys into the treehouses they’ve built. They’ve slammed whiffle balls into the structures they built with “upcyclables” – the camp’s term for the recyclables the first- through sixth-graders brought from home.

So, wait. Why is a seventh-grader at camp? He’s a counselor-in-training.

“It’s really cool to see the spark in kids’ eyes as they find out how everything works, and the first time they actually see the inside of a VCR and other stuff,” Ben said. “It’s been really cool to have kids come in and help them experience what I experienced, and the wonder of Camp Invention.”

Camp Invention is a national STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-centric camp that is held locally at Woodlawn Arts Academy and directed by Milledgeville preschool teacher Amy Hook.

The 2016 curriculum includes four projects: CrickoBot and Epic Park, both taught by Fulton fourth-grade teacher Amy Strehlow; and I Can Invent: Maker Studio, and The Lab: Where Pigs Fly, both taught by Strehlow’s longtime colleague, Sheila Alexander, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Fulton Elementary School.

This is a camp that puts the “fun” in fundamentals.

“It’s learning undercover,” Alexander said. “If they can learn by doing, it will stick. And we’re really excited to bring these concepts and experiments back to our classrooms and let our kids do some exploring,” Alexander said. “It’s given us more resources and information, as well.”

Camp is divided into two age groups: first- through third-graders and fourth- through sixth-graders. A trio of girls in the younger group drew a Makers Challenge slip during their I Can Invent session.

It read: The ultimate beach toy, tool or device.

Naturally, the first thing Gracie thought of was a robot to clean up trash on the beach.

“Since no one likes to pick up the trash, the robot can pick up trash for everyone,” Gracie said. “It could be a camera robot that can hear stuff. You wouldn’t have to control it. It just sees it and does it itself. Robots can do many things.”

“For her to draw that slip, then have the thought process to make a robot that would clean the beach, that’s amazing,” Hook said.

More amazing yet, the girls – Gracie, Emma Pham, 6, and Jordan Ducoing, all of Sterling – gleefully split up the workload to design a colorful 2-D rendering of the prototype.

“You know what Mrs. A really liked?” Alexander asked them. “The way you divided out who was making each part. And I like how you guys worked together to figure somebody would make the legs. Somebody would make the camera. I really like how you guys worked together today.”

Turns out, Gracie’s favorite part of her birthday was taking things apart – computers, namely.

“I like to make stuff and take stuff apart,” she said. “Taking stuff apart has been my favorite. We get to use stuff that I use on the farm that I really like to use – tools and other stuff.”

She got to use some tools, though, that she hadn’t yet learned to use. She couldn’t wait to tell her dad, Tom, what she’d learned when she got home.

“I get so excited,” she said. “I really like it here.”

Once the kids got the monkeys into the treehouse during their time in Epic Park, they had to figure out how to get a food source in there.

In the When Pigs Fly lab, the kids used myriad methods and angles to topple structures, then rebuild them.

“They learn in reverse mode what it takes to build stronger structures,” Alexander said.

They also learned basic computer coding and ciphered messages for each other to decipher. They worked with LEDs. Today, they’ll play with slime to learn about different states of matter.

“Pretty much every aspect of science, Amy and I have found a way to integrate it,” Alexander said.

The common thread in all four areas is a pyramid of brainstorming, as Strehlow called it. Whatever the kids learned Monday, they’ve continued to build on. After designing CrickoBots, they considered and designed their habitats, then created Spiderbots to see if they would eat the CrickoBots.

Not all of the lessons were linear, but they all followed the Common Core-type, next-level thinking that even the teachers have learned from this week.

“As a teacher, nothing ever really goes according to plan,” Strehlow said. “You constantly have to be changing what they’re learning and go with it.”

That’s when you hook kids like Ben.

“This is so much more hands-on than normal schoolwork,” he said. “A lot of time I sit in a desk, and I have to listen to stuff I learned last year – again. To me, that’s boring. If they changed it to make it more like Camp Invention – to be able to take things apart, put them back together, make new inventions and find new ways to use objects all around you? That would be much more fun.”

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