During the week of June 6 at Princeton Elementary, third-grader Jihan showcased the ‘prototype’ of an educational toy that he designed as part of Camp Invention. “I made something for little children to learn to read,” he said of the design, which used parts from a retired desktop PC keyboard, the keys popped out and rearranged. “This way my sister has to know what the letter looks like,” he said, “not just the order.” On the top right corner of the keyboard, a small, green LED light attached with duct tape to a watch battery lights up when pressed. “If you get the letter right, you get the green light,” he explained.
Camp Invention is a one-week summer day camp for elementary students developed by non-profit organization the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990; to date, the organization has impacted at least 800,000 children at 1,200 different schools across the country. The program curriculum is facilitated locally by teachers who receive professional development training and provides participants with “curricula focused on developing creativity, inventive thinking, and problem solving skills through hands-on STEM content.” This year is the first time the program has existed in Birmingham, and Princeton Elementary was ecstatic to host the STEM based camp at their school. Mrs. Ebony Porter, the camp’s director, managed a staff composed of teachers, high school interns, and parent volunteers who each played a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the program. Last Thursday Camp Invention at Princeton wrapped up with a Prototype Showcase, during which students showed and explained the inventions they had been building all week. Other inventions included a light-up travel kit, night vision goggles, puzzle games called “Catch the Knots” and “The Difficulty of the Light Bulb,” and an interesting toy called “The Smoke Alarm Frisbee.” Each of those prototypes were developed using materials from a reverse engineering activity they completed, along with recyclable items the students brought with them to camp.
Ms. Porter, a third grade teacher at the school, says she was inspired to start Camp Invention in Birmingham after working with the program at a school in Georgia. During that experience, she was able to see first-hand the positive impact STEM-based hands-on learning had on her students. “This camp completely changed my paradigm on what 3rd grade math and science looks like in the classroom,” she said. “Camp Invention challenged me to change the way I taught math and science, while giving me the confidence to begin integrating STEM activities into my lessons.”
After an initial attempt to start the program in summer 2015, Mrs. Porter applied for grants and researched options for funding to cover the cost of tuition for participating students. This year, Camp Invention was made possible through a partnership with Princeton Elementary School and the Summer Adventures In Learning collaborative (SAIL). SAIL is a partnership of funders in Birmingham that are managed by the Birmingham Education Foundation and which has invested more than $2,800,000 since 2012 to prevent summer learning loss among the city’s most vulnerable children. The Junior League of Birmingham and Alabama Power were the key SAIL funders of CAMP Invention.
Mrs. Porter was elated when she learned she would be able to administer the program this summer, and on Friday she was no less happy with the success that Camp Invention achieved. “Birmingham City Schools is full of 21st Century learners who need an opportunity to practice new concepts in a nonconventional way,” she said. “I am overjoyed by the campers’ excitement and enthusiasm for learning and hope to continue programming for summer 2017 through our partnership with SAIL.”
This piece was written by Walt Evans, Summer Writing Fellow with the Birmingham Education Foundation, and rising senior at Sewanee: The University of the South.