ST. JOSEPH — The lockers at Upton Middle School were empty this week, but the rest of the school hasn’t been.
After students across Southwest Michigan left school for summer vacation last week, 45 students chose to return for one more week to take part in a program called Camp Invention.
Camp Invention, a STEM-focused week-long camp for elementary school students has taken over the back half of the middle school this week. What began Monday and ends Friday serves as a summer enrichment camp that students use to continue their learning during the offseason.
Amy Dirlam, director of K-12 media and instructional technology for the school district, said the program began in 1990 and is now present at more than 1,000 schools across the country.
“We decided to do this the week after school was out as students were still in that routine,” Dirlam said. “Sometimes that transition from school to summer can be difficult for parents.”
As a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame – in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office – Camp Invention challenges children to find their inner inventor by learning the process of innovation.
Using hands-on activities, Dirlam said Camp Invention promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning, builds resourcefulness and problem-solving skills, and encourages entrepreneurship in an engaging environment.
Certified instructors were on-hand Wednesday, along with a few high school volunteers from the National Honor Society.
Each year, the program features a new curriculum inspired by some of the country’s best inventors. This year’s “Fast Forward” curriculum featured several video challenges encouraging children to be confident in their ideas and explore their innovativeness.
These activities required students to split off into four stations.
For those at the “Optibot” station, campers learned to work a small self-driving robot that senses changes in light.
At “Robotic Pet Vet,” campers were asked to nurse their robotic puppy back to health and design and build dog parks as they hammer out ideas for the best park attraction.
Daniyah Watson, 7, joined Camp Invention because her mother discovered a flier advertising the program that she brought home from school. As part of the Pet Vet portion of the camp, Daniyah had to nurse back to health a plastic dog, which she named “Sugar Plum.”
“My mom said it was a good opportunity,” said Daniyah, who attends Brown Elementary School. “It’s been really fun. My favorite part was Pet Vet.”
Dirlam said they’ve gotten more than just St. Joseph students for Camp Invention. Some came as far away as New Buffalo and Lakeside.
Pihu Sahai, 10, usually attends Brown Elementary School. But this week, she has spent her time making new friends and catching up with current ones throughout Camp Invention.
Pihu was in the process of creating a dog house for her robot dog Wednesday. She used a hot glue gun to bedazzle her dog house.
“The first day I was here, it was so fun,” Pihu said. “I told everyone I would be sad on Friday when it all ends.”
There were 45 students taking part in camp invention this year, as Dirlam said they wanted to keep numbers small in order to test the program that was making its first appearance in the district.
The capped number in attendance allowed Dirlam to split students into three separate age groups: first and second graders, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth graders.
At the “Mod My Mini Mansion” station, campers had to design their futuristic smart home filled with gadgets, LEDs, technology and innovations. For the “Stick To It” portion of the camp, students were tasked with inventing something new every day as they explore what it is like to be a physicist, engineer and entrepreneur.
The program also required upcycling materials, as parents sent in cardboard and other packing supplies to be used at the camp for creating projects.
“We have used nearly everything that was brought in,” Dirlam said. “Parents were able to get some of these packing materials out of the house and it showed students they don’t have to go out and buy something to create.”
At the end of the program, each camper will bring home two personalized robots. Dirlam said it’s also a nice break from the usual school structure.
“There are no grades, no right or wrong answers,” Dirlam said. “We just ask for a cooperative spirit and a positive attitude. If it continues to go well, we’d like to offer it next year.”