Editorial: Young campers learn to wrap their minds around engineering challenges, and more

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A weeklong summer camp at Whately Elementary School this month was encouraging to watch, as 31 bright young minds tackled engineering challenges by making all manner of Rube Goldberg contraptions at “Camp Invention.”

Rather than wile away the dog days of summer, these youngsters found fun and satisfaction wrapping their minds around creative challenges day after day.

Magnus Harrison, a 10-year-old from Deerfield, surrounded himself with foam pipe insulation that snaked around classroom chairs and over tables, directing marbles into fan switches and matchbox cars. He had invented a marble boxer.

“I drop a marble down the chute, it rolls around and falls into the box, because the slope of this end is greater than that end,” he explained to a visitor on the fourth day of camp.

Camp Invention promoted hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, which is seen as an important education track in our increasingly sophisticated technological world.

The program saw children from kindergarten through 5th grade build Lego structures, “marble mazes,” K’nex towers, self-driving cars, and robots. Each day students received a new challenge and raw materials, watched an inspirational video about the subject, and then tackled the objective. Build a bridge, propel a car, lift an object.

While the students learned some practical scientific lessons, like Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion about inertia, they also learned what in some ways are more important lessons of problem solving.

Donna Carmody, a 4th grade Sunderland Elementary School teacher at Invention Camp, says that at Camp Invention there was no correct way to complete each day’s challenges. One student put floss inside a marble track “because it’s slippery,” she noted. “And who’s to say it’s wrong?” A few students substituted their own materials to complete projects, such as a straw instead of a wooden axle. Others created a pulley system out of a cardboard box, forgoing cups given for that purpose.

Another important skill used and learned was collaboration. “Nobody owns any idea,” Carmody noted.

The students also learned about self reflection and revision as tools for future success.

Tyler Wolkowicz, 10, proudly explained that the skills he had learned allowed him to design and build a bridge that can support the weight of two classmates, about 100 pounds, with Popsicle sticks and duct tape.

Union 38 schools in southern Franklin County plan to incorporate engineering design, similar to the summer camp’s approach, into their yearly curriculum. And that’s a good thing that other districts might consider. We’ve seen programs like these in recent years – at Greenfield’s Math and Science Academy for middle school students, for example – and we hope that more schools will offer similar opportunities

Lessons learned about math, science and engineering are great ways to advance young people’s academics, but more important in the long run are the lessons we can teach them about creative problem solving, the value of revision, collaboration and perseverance – all of which will help them succeed anywhere their lives and schooling takes them.