It’s a long way from a wax prototype of a hover-bike to mass production, but a first-time inventor has to start somewhere.
Eleven-year-old Hunter Wright carefully pressed together the diminutive wax strands that his teammates built, as they discussed what features they should incorporate. Add a snack box for the hungry hover-bicyclist? Make sure it flies high enough to avoid traffic, but also low enough to take the dog for a walk, they agreed.
A few feet away, four girls were focused on their idea for a new kind of smartwatch, built from components of castoff computers. In another room, a small team created a powerful-looking catapult, only to learn during testing that it needed an arm stronger than a cardboard paper towel tube.
Creativity broke out nearly everywhere among 85 elementary-school-age students this week at Fairfax County’s Fort Hunt Elementary School, which transformed into Camp Invention. It’s one of the 1,500 summer day camps sponsored for children in grades 1-6 by the Alexandria-based National Inventors Hall of Fame and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The fast-paced camps are focused on hands-on science, technology, engineering and math education, problem-solving and creative thinking. Hall of Fame inventors and collegiate inventors drop in via video, challenging the students to solve certain problems, and telling them about how their own inventions started, failed and succeeded.
The curriculum changes every year. This year, campers have to design an island-based park with tree houses, zip lines, water rides and treasure-seeking. They have their own “maker studio” where they reverse-engineer existing electronics. In a separate laboratory, they create code for a programmable robot, bounce light using the rules of geometry and make their own slime, learning bioluminescence and chemistry. They also add a solar cell to a robotic cricket and create motorized spider predators, learning physics, biology and engineering.
Students were deeply engaged at mid-afternoon Wednesday, racing to build projects that their small teams described as “epic,” and with little observable tomfoolery that can come with children on a summer’s day. Experienced teachers oversaw the creative chaos, and laughter burst from teams as their projects failed, failed and then succeeded.
The day camp costs $220 for the week, and scholarships are available.
“We give every camp three pallets of material,” said Hannah Paulin, the chief strategic officer for Invent Now, a not-for-profit organization that operates the Hall of Fame and Camp Invention. “A key part of this is you don’t have to buy an expensive robotics kit to be inventive.”
Students keep an “invention log,” a scientific notebook where they sketch out their ideas (with dates and witnesses, in case their application for a patent is ever challenged). Step by step, the young inventors record what worked, what did not and how they attempted to solve problems.
A colorful poster, based on insights from inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, encouraged the students to create, fail fast, keep an open mind, adapt, connect with others, persist, make improvements, look for what’s missing and allow time for incubation.
The Hall of Fame was founded in 1973 and moved to the campus of the Patent and Trademark Office in 2008. Its museum at 600 Dulaney St. in Alexandria is free and full of interactive exhibits, including from the man who invented the blue LED light (Shuji Nakamura) and the inventor of the waterproof diaper cover (Marion Donovan).
The history of those inventions might inspire this generation, but the students have their own ideas.
Scott Vollmer, vice president of creative and program development for Invent Now, said that when the teachers prompt the students to think of a problem from their own lives that needs a solution, the responses can be breathtaking, including how to improve traffic circles and how to notify their parents if they are kidnapped.
A week’s exposure to STEM-based projects has an impact, he said.
“So many kids come in wanting to be pro basketball players and come out wanting to be engineers,” Vollmer said.