Inventing summer

Camp Invention attendees
Amy Foote, left, Faith Kozek and another Camp Invention participant tested out their experimental submarine in a bucket last week.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But

Faith Kozek, of Columbia Heights, is its 8-year-old cousin.

She and two friends were recently trying to build a submarine out of plastic plates, masking tape, steel washers, chunks of styrofoam and wooden wheels. It turned out a little, well, lopsided.

"Our submarine just keeps floating on its side," Kozek pleaded during a test dive. "It's all wig-waggy and it just won't go."

And that's just one of the challenges for Kozek and dozens of other kids who spent a week at Expo Elementary in St. Paul. They plotted how to survive a volcanic eruption. They reimagined bowling and gutted everything from blenders to fax machines.

Kids talk about their inventions
Cole Nicholls, right, and Elwood Olson talk with Sammi Rosenthal, facing camera, about their inventions at Camp Invention in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

It was one of hundreds week-long camp invention sessions running across the country this summer. About 60,000 kids a year participate in 47 states.

The camps feature a set of classes. Some are focused on basic science, like the physics of amusement rides or the principles of flotation. Some encourage kids to think of novel ways to deal with imaginary scenarios like space flight or cleaning up a polluted river.

But the highlight of every camp is the "I Can Invent" segment. Kids haul in broken appliances and tools and computers and transform them.

Often with the aid of a hammer.

Angela Sigmund teaches at Camp Invention
Camp Invention teacher Angela Sigmund talked to students about improving submarines they were designing.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Cole Nicholls and his friend, Elwood Olson, were working on a makeshift device meant to pop a water balloon, a task assigned to older kids at one version of the camp.

Cole is from Minneapolis.

"Well, right now, we have just finished taking a computer hard drive and hot gluing nails on it," Cole explained. "We're going to make a fling thing that flings stuff. We're going to fling it over a wall that's going to go on this ramp, roll down and hit this spike thing, where the water balloon, which is the fling thing, will explode."

If you can't figure that out, don't worry. Nobody else can, either.

Angela Sigmund, is a first grade teacher in Shakopee during the school year who likes to run classes at Camp Invention during the summer.

"The students that come to this are so creative, and they just have these crazy ideas. And they're brilliant," Sigmund says.

The idea is for kids to experiment, and not necessarily successfully, she says.

"It's a great way for them to use everything and all the talents that they have to invent new things to come up with these crazy ideas with these crazy materials, and do things that you never thought you could do with a popsicle stick or a straw; you know, like making submarines out of plates. It stretches their minds and keeps them thinking all summer."

There's a larger purpose, too. The camps started in Akron, Ohio, with a push from the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. The U.S. Patent office is a sponsor, and the kids get a primer about intellectual property as a result. Companies like 3M and Ford also chip in here in Minnesota, where there are 52 sessions this summer. The camp started with five sessions 10 years ago.

The camp's success goes beyond just numbers, according to organizers like Claudia Stepnick, who runs some of the sessions.

"I've had parents even stop me in a grocery store and say 'do you know their still building those roller coaster that they were building at camp," Stepnick says. "Or 'they're going through our recycling all the time and our whole basement is full of this city that they've made.' So the kids don't just come to camp and go home and forget about it. They tend to continue to live it."

The camp is running in 31 cities across the state this summer, from Albert Lea to International Falls. Cost varies at each location, but usually runs about $220.

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