Fun is the mother of invention

Weeklong camp invites kids to exercise their minds and stretch their creativity


In one room at Burleigh Manor Middle School, kids are building a miniature-golf course. In another, they're making submarines from soda bottles and tennis ball cans. And in a third, they're searching for a lost treasure.

It is all part of Camp Invention, a weeklong program for elementary-age children created by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation and offered through the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

The national program, founded in 1990, has been available in Howard County for six years, said Helen Campbell, who, as regional coordinator, organizes 33 such camps in Maryland and Northern Virginia. The camp, created in partnership with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is offered in 44 states.

"It's a little bit of learning with a lot of fun," said Cynthia Sudia, who has directed the Howard County program since it started. The young people learn about physics, math, engineering and other subjects while playing games and inventing things.

This year, four sessions are being held, including the one last week at Burleigh Manor. The others will be at River Hill High School, Glenwood Middle School and Reservoir High School. The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Though specifics of the program are tweaked from year to year, the most popular activity does not change. That's "I Can Invent," in which participants make things out of recyclable materials and parts from broken appliances that they bring from home.

Sudia said she has seen more than 100 broken videocassette recorders over the years, and nearly every camper uses parts from them to create a mock robot that will do homework or keep siblings away.

The camp can handle as many as 100 children per session, keeping a ratio of 18 campers to two counselors, she said. The counselors are certified teachers.

Most sessions have about 60 campers, Sudia said. They are divided by age group, and each group rotates through all the activities every day. Each rotation includes about 10 minutes of instruction and nearly an hour of hands-on activity. "We want to do a lot of hands-on and a lot of fun," Sudia said.

At the start of the week, kids bring in recyclable items from home, including milk jugs, cardboard boxes and egg cartons. As they create, they pick through the giant pile of items, which dwindles as the week progresses.

Last week, first- and second-graders were building a miniature-golf course under the guidance of counselor Matt Augustin, a physical education teacher in Montgomery County during the school year. The idea is to create obstacles so it is a challenge to get a plastic golf ball into the "hole" - a paper cup.

Darrien Yu, 7, who is going into third grade at Centennial Elementary School, was trying to construct something with tin foil as part of his project. "I love science. It's my favorite subject," he said.

Several of the children moved into a hallway to test their creations with putters they had created from dowels and foam rubber. "You don't want to make it impossible," Augustin reminded his young charges. "You might want to make the obstacle closer or farther away, or change the direction of your obstacle."

Eliana Herman, 8, who is entering third grade at Thunder Hill Elementary School, smacked her ball into her paper cup in two tries. Asked what she likes about Camp Invention, she said, "What we're doing now."

Third-graders, guided by Caren Maas, wore plastic garbage bags over their clothes to shield them from the heat of a "volcano."

"They are on a remote island looking for a lost treasure," Maas said.

Under counselor Robb Berkenkemper's guidance, those going into grades four through six were making submarines that could be used to troll for rocks and coins in the bottom of an inflated kids pool in the center of the classroom. "The object is to get the submarine to sink by filling up ballast tanks on the sides," he said.

Ten-year-old David Smart, who will be a sixth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, said he likes the camp because "I get to build my own robot." He is working on a creation that can open and close its mouth and move its hands, he said. It is made from parts of a VCR, and the head is cardboard.

Ben Cohen, 9, who is going into fifth-grade at Atholton Elementary School, is making his robot from an old coffee maker, a laptop and parts of a telephone. When he is finished, he said, his creation will "do chores I don't want to do."

Sarah Forman, 9, who will be a fifth-grader at Bushy Park, said this is her second year at the camp. "I came here again because this was my favorite camp last year," she said. She was working with Abbie Wright, 10, a student at Dunloggin Middle School, on a submarine with a cardboard and tin-foil scooper.

"This is my first time coming here, and I really like it so far," Abbie said.

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