Camp Invention and the National Inventors Hall of Fame

A Summer of STEM

Kids are getting the benefit of summer camps that focus on STEM based activities

For many children, the arrival of summer means sleeping in, hanging out with friends and leisurely exploring the great outdoors.

As the stresses of teachers and homework slowly fade, those nights spent toiling over algebra problems or studying for chemistry quizzes become faint, unpleasant memories.

On the surface, it’s a dream come true.

Unfortunately, this all-American summer has begun to pose problems in a country that’s falling behind the rest of the world in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM, as it’s commonly called.

During summer vacation, American students lose an equivalent of two months of grade-level math, according to the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit dedicated to closing achievement gaps by increasing summer learning opportunities.

By fifth grade, this summer learning loss can leave poorer students more than 2 years behind their peers.

Luckily, in 2016, there are plenty of options to keep young minds moving.

According to a 2013 survey from the American Camp Association, the number of STEM summer camps surged by 12 percent in the early 2010s.

Today, hundreds of STEM-based camps across the country give students the chance to learn coding, develop apps and solve real-world problems at a time when they might otherwise be sitting by the pool.

While these camps have recently earned the spotlight – prompted by a national emphasis on developing STEM professionals – some organizations were years ahead of the curve.

NMTI Winner Jim West works with a Camp Invention camper. Photo Courtesy of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Camp Invention

Camp Invention, one of the earliest innovation-based summer programs, convened its first classes in 1990 in the basement of the National Inventors Hall of Fame museum in Akron, Ohio.

The Hall of Fame, founded in 1973 in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, developed the camp to amplify its mission, hoping to inspire the next generation with stories of great innovators.

At first, the program – held in local schools – grew regionally throughout northeast Ohio, slowly branching out.

This summer, Camp Invention will be in all 50 states, serving 80,000 students in grades first through sixth.

“What we’re trying to do is help shift their attitudes early on in elementary school before they hit that teen turning point where science isn’t cool anymore,” said Hannah Paulin, chief strategic officer.

NMTI Winner Steve Sasson with his campers at Camp Invention! Photo courtesy of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Camp Invention

To keep up with the latest technology, the curriculum changes annually. This year, students will build solar-powered robotic crickets, develop blueprints for an imaginary fun park and build new inventions using discarded electronics.

Along the way, they also get in-person visits and video challenges from famous inventors, who – as Paulin notes – weren’t necessarily the smartest kids in class.

“While our inductees are brilliant, they just had someone along the way who gave them that spark and encouragement,” Paulin said. “We give kids the opportunity to see individuals that they might think aren’t accessible to them – these geniuses of the world that they could aspire to be.”

Where Camp Invention isn’t offered, students have plenty of other options.

“What didn’t exist five years ago is now a very crowded market of people trying to figure out how to infuse technology education – to spin coding, development, and programming into their kids’ arsenal of tools,” said Sally Lowery, vice president of marketing for Youth Digital. “We’ve become a very digitally inclined community.”

Founded in 2010, Youth Digital’s summer camps reach kids in 65 schools across 6 states. The organization also offers additional online resources for children who want to leverage their camp skills all year long.

A bulk of the camp’s courses build upon a child’s existing interest in video games to teach programming fundamentals.

“Kids spend an enormant amount of time consuming video games. They’re playing all the time,” Lowery said. “Parents want them to use that time more productively.”

Minecraft makes compromising easy.

Purchased by Microsoft in 2014, Minecraft is a “sandbox” game where users roam freely in a world where everything is made from blocks.  The average player age is 29, and 40 percent of players are female.

Within the game, users can create custom characters and use Java to program “third party mods,” user-submitted changes to the imaginary world.

“They can create their own sword and design their own pick ax, armor or food,” said John Putnam, Youth Digital’s director of summer camps. “We’re exposing these kids to these tools they could be using one day down the road.”

The tools, however, don’t come at the expense of fun and meeting new friends.

“People think, ‘Oh they’re sitting in a dark room in front of a computer for 6 hours a day’,” said Joan Rigdon, founder of The Great Adventure Lab. “It’s not like that at all.”

Rigdon, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, created The Great Adventure Lab in September 2010 with her husband, Eric, a software engineer who works at NASA on Mars and moon missions.

Future STEM superstars enjoy their time at the Great Adventure Lab! Photo Courtesy of Great Adventure Lab.

Since then, the company, which offers STEM-themed birthday parties and summer programs at schools throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, has helped instruct more than 10,000 children on how to write their first program.

Created by the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, Scratch is a “drag-and-drop” programming language that allows users to build “scripts” by dragging blocks together – like a jigsaw puzzle – to form interactive stories.

The program, according to MIT’s website, is primarily designed for kids ages 8 to 16.

By the time they graduate from college, however, most of these children probably won’t become programmers. But that doesn’t make the training any less important.

“Maybe you aren’t going to write novels, but you should be able to write,” Rigdon said. “Even if you’re not going to be a programmer, you should be literate in basic programming.”

It’s the same sentiment at Camp Invention where kids learn teamwork, taking on different roles – from CEO to director of marketing – for the various products they create.

“It helps kids to learn these 21st century skills that are really important regardless of what field they go into,” she added. “Regardless of what you end up doing, these lessons are very valuable.”