Camp Invention

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140 young minds explore big ideas as they learn to invent

As school gets underway, kids are reminiscing about last summer and parents are thinking about activities for next summer. Camp Invention, a nationwide one-week summer program, returned to the North Shore of Long Island in August for its third year thanks to Great Neck North Class of 1994 grad Rachel Gilliar.

Enrollment skyrocketed this year to 140 students at the Port Washington site, drawing children in kindergarten through sixth grade, primarily from Port Washington, but also from Great Neck, Manhasset, Roslyn and points beyond, according to Gilliar, the program director.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School, Gilliar is a native of Great Neck, where her family has resided for five generations.

Camp Invention is based on studies of how real inventors played as children, explained Gilliar, who was elected to the Port Washington Board of Education in 2017. The camp offers a hands-on curriculum for children to think creatively using science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

In 2015, when Gilliar first became aware of Camp Invention, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, she took her twin 6-year-old daughters to the nearest location, which was in Rockville Center.

“Over the course of the following year, I could see the impact it had on how they thought,” said Gilliar. “They wanted to fix broken things and take stuff apart to see how it works.”

Gilliar explained the underlying philosophy of Camp Invention.

“For the children, the process is as important as the end product,” she said. “It empowers them to think innovatively, to know that they can imagine something and build it.”

By the next summer, with the encouragement of the national organization, she opened a Camp Invention in Port Washington, where she could make the “markedly different” camp closer to home.

For the first two summers, the camp took place in classrooms at the Community Synagogue in Sands Point. This year, it moved to the Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School.

Each year, the National Inventors Hall of Fame engages in a yearlong process of devising a brand new program for the following summer. This summer, it delivered its curriculum and guidance to more than 1,500 locations in all 50 states. Dozens of huge cartons were shipped to each location. Gilliar and her staff met before camp began to assess all the material and think about how to implement the larger vision.

The camp offers students a number of modules centered on a different theme each summer. This year’s was Fast Forward.

One Fast Forward module was Optibot. On the fifth and final day of the program, a group of 9 year olds moved out from the classroom to the hallway where they unfurled a sheet of paper several feet wide and many yards long. Down the center of the paper was a black undulating line they had designed and drawn. The children placed tiny cars on the paper to test their design.

On the white paper, the cars remain stationary, but, when a car was placed on the black line, the tiny unmanned robot traveled steadily along the line, unless, as the children learned, the curve was too drastic, which caused the car to veer off track and come to an abrupt halt. The campers observed in silent fascination and then discussed among themselves what they were observing.

This Optibot module, as described by Camp Invention, is a “small self-driving bot that senses changes in light.” The children were exploring the technology behind a “futuristic vehicle that might one day be reality.”

In the module Robotic Pet Vet, the children “analyzed simple machinery and circuits,” and customized their own robotic dog.

In Mod My Mini Mansion, each camper designed a “smart” home and constructed it.

The first year of the Port Washington camp had 42 students and two teachers. In its third year this summer, the camp welcomed 140 students and eight teachers, all of whom either teach in Port Washington schools or live in the district, said Gilliar, who interviews and hires the staff.

The five-day program is nonprofit, and 12 of the 140 participants this year attended on scholarships, said Gilliar with pride, half funded by a local organization, Summer Together, and half donated from private individuals.

The teachers this year were assisted by 16 leadership interns, who are in high school or college, some returning from previous summers. In addition, children in seventh through ninth grade attend as counselors in training.

Jordan Wolf, who teaches biology at the Flushing International High School in Queens, is one of the two original teachers who has returned each summer. For Wolf, the key to the Camp Invention curriculum is open-ended problem-solving that encourages students to explore potential solutions rather than working toward just one solution.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” Wolf said. “Within each module, students can focus on the artistry of their inventions, they can stretch their imaginations about
what they think their inventions can do, or they can focus on the materials and explore how a certain type of paper, fabric, wood or anything else can be manipulated.”

On the final day of camp, as 140 students departed, and their parents maneuvered past each other in the crowded hallway carrying cardboard boxes of precious experiments, one first grader was overheard telling her friend, “This was a blast!”

Learn about plans for the 2019 summer program at www.campinvention.org.

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