An ambitious program hopes to supply America’s inventors for the twenty-first century
IT WAS A EUREKA! MOMENT. THE DAY HADN’T STARTED well for Logan O’Keefe, age six. It was the summer between first and second grades, and on this particular day Logan looked perplexed. She was participating in a daycamp program called Camp Invention. Her teacher showed the students a pile of old appliances—radios, toasters, mixers, blenders—and told them to take them apart to learn how they worked, then see if they could use the pieces to invent something new.
Most of the students dug into the demolition project with enthusiasm, but Logan was not comfortable. Clearly she was uncertain what was expected of her, and there was no sign of pleasure as she began rummaging through the pile in search of a way to follow her teacher’s instruction.
It wasn’t long before she found a small electric motor and realized it would fit neatly inside a little cardboard tube in the rummage pile. A piece of duct tape turned the tube into a motor mount, and a couple of Popsicle sticks became a propeller. When she connected the wires to a battery, the gadget produced a very satisfying helicopter action.
“Ooooooooooh!” said the other students. Logan was the first one able to cobble together an invention that actually did something, and her classmates were impressed. She smiled with pride in her accomplishment and the knowledge that she had just discovered a new and unexpected way to look cool in the eyes of her peers. Pride. Accomplishment. New and unexpected discoveries. That’s just what kids are supposed to get from Camp Invention, a summer program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
We who work at the Hall of Fame take a special pride in Camp Invention, which may be our most popular program. Last year more than 27,000 children participated in one-week camps that used handson activities to teach creativity, inventive thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. At least 30,000 campers in 38 states are expected to participate this summer and have experiences that will make them more enthusiastic about science and mathematics. Parents tell us that they like Camp Invention because their children enjoy it so much, and teachers praise the program because it incorporates advanced methods that they say are needed to improve the nation’s system of teaching science.
“One of the biggest problems facing American society today is our science education system,” says Jeff Saxon, president of Camp Invention. The nation’s citizenry have unacceptable levels of scientific literacy, he adds, and too few young Americans choose careers in science or math.
Today Camp Invention is the largest outreach program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which operates the camps as part of its overall effort to inspire invention and creativity. The history of Camp Invention began in 1987, when business and community leaders in Akron, Ohio, won a competition for the right to serve as a host city for the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Since the museum wouldn’t be ready for several years, Camp Invention was created to provide local families with a taste of what they could expect to find after it opened.
The founders of Camp Invention were aware of the shortcomings of traditional science education, so they tried to make it a state-of-the-art demonstration of how science should be taught. For example, the part of the program that allowed Logan O’Keefe to create her own version of a helicopter is a daylong lesson called “I Can Invent.” Another session is “Planet ZAK ,” in which students imagine they have crashlanded in a world with a hostile environment and have to improvise ways to use limited materials to survive and escape. “Super Polymers” gives children a way to see for themselves why rubber bends and stretches and to make their own plastic.
The teachers who run Camp Invention say it avoids most of the inadequacies of traditional education. However, you don’t have to be a teacher to know about the problems, which are distressingly familiar to all of us who love science and technology. Both the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences have documented that our educational system does an inadequate job of teaching science and encouraging students—especially female and minority students—to pursue science-related careers. The American Association for the Advancement of Science recommends transforming the national science-teaching system by turning to hands-on methods that emphasize curiosity and creativity.
American schools have traditionally worked hardest to provide science education at the high school level, which is much too late. “It’s been shown that most kids who chose science as a field of study became enthusiastic about math and science at a much younger age,” Saxon says. “It’s very rare for a kid to be turned on to science in high school. If you want to get kids excited about math and science, you’ve got to do it when they’re still young enough to be receptive to the idea.”
But if there is general agreement that enthusiasm about science diminishes as children age, there is none about why. Saxon points out that peer pressure steers kids in the wrong direction: “Kids in high school have a tendency to look at science as something that’s not cool.” Media images don’t help either. Television glamorizes lawyers, cops, and athletes. “If you see a scientist on a show, it’s usually a bad guy developing some horrible weapon or hurting the environment.”
Pam Oviatt, who was a classroom teacher before becoming an education specialist for Camp Invention in 1999, found the problem in the classroom obvious. “People are threatened by science,” she says. She earned the nickname “Messy Mrs. O.” from students who were impressed that so many of her science lessons led to major housekeeping problems. Because creativity of all kinds is more pronounced in younger students, she argues, the best science teaching requires a special effort to get children to open their minds to experimentation. Part of the goal of Camp Invention is to provide what she calls “a total immersion in science”—an environment in which children feel less intimidated by the subject matter.
Camp Invention grew slowly until last year, when officials at the Hall of Fame decided the program had gotten as large as it could support. Saxon was hired to turn the small business into a big one, capable of enrolling as many as 100,000 students by 2004. Now age 53, he began his career as a mechanical engineer before moving into executive positions at several companies, including B. F. Goodrich and LTV Steel. The contraction of the steel industry prompted him to leave LTV, and he was looking for another job in manufacturing when friends encouraged him to investigate Camp Invention. “The more I looked at it, the more excited I became,” he says. “I’ve got three kids, so I have as much reason as anybody to be concerned about the problems we face in education.”
The toughest part of Saxon’s job may be finding ways to offer Camp Invention to city students. Traditionally, it has been offered as a weeklong summer program in suburban school districts, where parents who can afford the $185 tuition are easy to find. The high price is caused in part by the fact that each student receives all the tools and materials needed for five separate daylong lessons and that Camp Invention’s experienced, certified teachers are paid more than the students and volunteers who conduct most hands-on enrichment programs. “The problem is, the price is beyond the means of the families that need Camp Invention most,” says Saxon. “The way we do business in the suburbs won’t work in urban districts.”
Last year officials offered Camp Invention in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, and Saxon argues that the long-term success of the urban initiative hinges on finding grants from donors willing to underwrite the tuition for families that can’t afford it.
There’s a special imperative for expanding into urban school districts. Last year Saxon hired the Center for Creative Learn ing, of Sarasota, Florida, to conduct a detailed outside evaluation of Camp Invention. “We have the belief that Camp Invention is an effective program, but we wanted to know what independent experts thought,” he explains. According to the center’s director, Don Treffinger, the evaluation findings included two facts that are especially relevant: Camp Invention persuaded 78 percent of its participants that science was something they’d like to learn more about, and that figure was constant regardless of race, gender, or family income.
Whether Camp Invention will become an important part of the effort to reform U.S. science education won’t be known for years, but some educators say the program is already important to them personally. A good example is Su MacIntyre, who teaches in the Philadelphia area. “Camp Invention has changed my life,” MacIntyre says. “It came along at a time when I was so disgusted with teaching that I was seriously thinking of leaving education. Last year was probably the most trying year yet in my teaching career. The class of students I had was so apathetic, not only to learning but to life, it was sad. After I started working for Camp Invention, my faith in education and children’s innate love of learning was reborn.”
It remains to be seen whether any significant inventors will emerge from the Camp Invention program. “It’s too early to know what will happen. It’s been available only since 1990,” Oviatt says. However, she points out, many of the 168 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame say that their interest in math and science grew out of childhood experiences. “One of these days I believe we’ll get an inductee who got hooked on science at Camp Invention.”