For a first-time Camp Invention teacher, Theresa Vescovi brought a boatload of energy, enthusiasm and encouragement, plus a sense of down-home humor.
“You made some simple, quick inventions to see if we can launch it up here,” she told the youngsters in her charge, pointing to a poster on the wall of some cows at auction. “If your invention is successful, if you have engineered the right thing, what do you get? Moo-lah. You get some moolah for your farm.”
Perhaps not all of the soon-to-be second-graders working on the project are all that familiar with the concept of a pun, but the adults in the classroom at the time had a good laugh.
And Vicki Flotta, director of public relations for Bethel Park School District, came up with one of her own.
“Ya know, this is udderly fun,” she said.
Vescovi was instructing Farm Tech, one of four modules, themed areas of study, offered during the weeklong session of Camp Invention at Bethel Park’s Neil Armstrong Middle School. One of the exercises was for students to develop catapult-like objects to launch toy bales of hay at the poster, earning play money toward running play farms.
“This has been a great week, because really, it’s showing them that farming is not like it used to be. They don’t even get dirty,” said Vescovi, a Benjamin Franklin Elementary School teacher. “We talked about in Japan, there are enormous, thousand-acre farms that are completely automated. Every tractor drives itself.”
Bethel Park School District has hosted Camp Invention, a summer enrichment program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, for the past four years. Using hands-on activities, the camp promotes STEM learning – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – plus leadership, problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills.
Special education teacher Laura Huth, who worked at William Penn Elementary and is moving to Neil Armstrong for the new school year, has served as camp director since the beginning. During that time, the number of campers has increased from 74 to 146.
“When we started the camp, we had smaller numbers at the higher end of the age group and higher numbers at the primary end, and we had very few girls in fourth, fifth and sixth grades,” Huth said. “Now, the incoming fifth-graders is our largest group this year, and it’s loaded with girls.
“Research shows that you have to get interested early,” she continued. “Almost by middle school, they’re finding, it’s too late, that your stereotypes have already been ingrained, in that science and math is more for boys. So you really have to start younger.”
Camp Invention is open to children who are entering kindergarten through sixth grade. High school students serve as leadership interns for the program, and students in seventh through ninth grades are leadership interns in training.
“What we’re finding this year is that they’re stronger leaders, because they’re actually stronger leaders, because they’ve been through the camp already, but they’re on the other side now,” Huth said. “And so they know what to anticipate.”
This year’s Camp Invention, held July 15-19 at Neil Armstrong, features three other modules in its national curriculum: Deep Sea Mystery, Innovation Force and DIY Orbot.
If you unscramble the last-named, it’s “robot,” and youngsters had the opportunity to program and customize the small hexagonal objects. An example was an activity called “Bot-casso,” named after a certain famous Spanish painter and sculptor.
“Today, what they’re doing is using it to create artwork. They had to come up with that they could put a marker on and be able to easily adjust it, take it off, put it on and put the cap on,” Bethel Park High School technology education teacher Brad Kszastowski said. “Problem-solving is the biggest thing that they learn, because everything is build, test, observe, fix, improve it and make it better.”
Deep Sea Mystery, instructed by West Jefferson Hills School District teacher Dan Owen, included numerous activities related to the oceans.
For example, students pretended they had been stranded on an island, and they constructed devices for fishing using recyclable materials they had brought from home. Then they tried to see if the devices actually worked, a small wading pool substituting for the deep sea and toy marine life for the real thing.
“Now, remember what the rule is: behind the tape, on the towel. This is like being at Kennywood. Don’t move in too far. Don’t fall in with the fish,” Owen told the students. “If it doesn’t work very well, you can try to make changes. That’s part of the engineering design process.”
As for the Innovation Force, the premise has campers teaming up with National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees as superheroes “to battle the evil Plagiarizer, a supervillain who is out to steal the world’s greatest ideas. As children create a device to retrieve the stolen ideas, they learn about the importance of intellectual property and the U.S. patent system.”
“We introduce a new inventor each day and then talk about their superpowers,” said instructor Kent Wallisch, a Bethel Park High School art teacher. He gave the example of George Alcorn, the NASA physicist who invented an imaging X-ray spectrometer and devised an improved method of fabrication using laser drilling.
The students also created their own superhero costumes and learned about the process of patenting a product, including coming up with an effective logo.
“We’re thinking about all the important things: color, design, balance, recognizable symbols without words that will represent their character, and originality,” Wallisch said.
Along with the increase in campers, the number of teachers participating in Camp Invention has grown along, and Huth appreciates their involvement.
“The team is enthusiastic. They’re flexible, and they’re just great to work with,” she said.