By Lisa Schott
We had an amazing week at Inventors Camp for Girls this summer! Campers joined us from all over the state of NH, from VT, and even from NY. They ranged in age from third grade students to seventh grade students. All of this made for an exciting mix of ideas and perspective.
On day one - after settling on a super awesomely ferocious team name - the girls worked together to define what it means to be an inventor. We explored the inventor’s process by completing the spaghetti challenge (using uncooked spaghetti, tape and string, build the tallest structure possible that can hold a marshmallow on top). There were many creative ideas, and some inventive methods for interpreting the design brief.
We also put on our acting hats for an intergalactic conference - campers were each assigned to an imaginary planet and given some background information on what life and culture were like on their home planet. They had to take on the characteristics and mannerisms of someone from that planet and then they all came together to try to invent a better toaster. With so many different cultures represented, conflicts and teamwork challenges stood in the way and no toaster designs were successfully completed. However, we did have a great conversation about how important it is to be able to work with people - even when they are totally different than you, and how to use empathy to create compromise and bring ideas together in the inventing process.
Later in the day, we chose from a buffet of craft supplies to come up with an invention that would improve the lives of people on the planets we had represented earlier. Groups created prototypes for “practice people” to help folks get more comfortable being around others, special headphones to train someone to speak more quietly, a stress-reducing park bench, and a sound-proof box that would allow someone to wiggle and clap without disrupting a regular conversation.
Our second day took our inventing skills to outer space. We spoke with Zibi Turtle, a Planetary Scientist at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory via video conference (Zibi also happens to be the sister-in-law of our Executive Director here at WMSI, and the Aunt of one of our Youth Instructors at Inventors’ Camp!). We learned about her NASA-funded project to send the Dragonfly octo-copter to Saturn’s moon, Titan. She shared with us some of the challenges of inventing and designing tech that won’t be in use until most of our campers are 23-28 years old and which has to operate over a billion miles from our own planet. She also filled us in on some of the most fun parts of being an astrophysicist working as a part of a close-knit team.
After speaking with Zibi, we spent the morning working on building our own rovers using LEGO EV3 bricks. Our campers experienced first-hand some of the challenges that Zibi mentioned, working in a team, troubleshooting design flaws and being patient in their work. The day culminated with us all working together to send one of our rovers to a “foreign planet” (deep in space, OR deep in the next room?) where it was programmed to collect data remotely. We then analyzed that data to learn which planet our rover was on. It turned out to be on the plant “T” - which these young inventors were successfully able to intuit based on the data they received from their rover!
After our exploration of space the day before, day three was all about digging into what’s going on right here on Earth - literally! We met Katie Fiegenbaum, Vegetable Production Manager at Meadowstone Farm here in Littleton, NH. Katie shared photos and videos as she told us about her life - from her time in the Peace Corps inventing systems to help indigenous people in Guatemala in their planting and growing, to her work as a journalist on Capital Hill connecting Colorado farmers with the work happening in congress to protect their rights. Finally, we learned about some of the challenges the team at Meadowstone Farm faces in food production. We saw some of the innovative methods they have for drying greens, growing creeping/climbing crops and mapping out crop rotations. Katie even let us sample some of the fruits of their inventive farming - she shared fresh tomatoes, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and even let us all try her personal favorite, kohlrabi!
The girls got their hands dirty while building our own creative trellises for creeping/climbing crops - some campers created trellises that could help to water their plants, others had built-in features to help keep pests at bay, while still others designed their trellises to serve different purposes at different stages of their plants’ development. Katie kindly started cucumber seedlings for our inventors in the greenhouse several weeks prior to camp, so we were all able to bring home a creeping/climbing plant of our own with which to test all the trellis designs!
We also got to try out one of the complicated parts of Katie’s work. We learned about the growing constraints of several types of crops (some need more or less sun or shade, others need to start inside then move outside, others can’t be grown in the same field multiple years in a row and require a cover crop to help protect the soil in off years, etc.). Then, we went about designing our own farms and mapping out where we would choose to plant what, depending on those growing constraints. Finally, we connected our maps to Scratch via a Makey Makey and coded them to be interactive! This allowed us to learn about what grows where on one another’s farms simply by pushing a button on their map, hearing information and, in some cases, even seeing a helpful graphic.
On the penultimate day of camp we were joined by Molly Maloy, Architectural Designer at Garland Mill in Lancaster, NH. Molly shared her architectural knowledge with us through several fun projects. First, the girls got to ask questions and hear all about her work for Garland Mill. Specifically, about a major commercial building renovation they undertook last year: 23 Ammonoosuc Street - home to our own WMSI headquarters! Molly shared with us that it took her 104 pages of drawings, spreadsheets and 3-D CAD files to map out the plans for this building. We learned about some of the challenges she has in her work, like making changes to her favorite designs to better meet her clients’ ideas, and figuring out all the constraints and strengths of different building materials and the needs of the contractors who will build her designs. She also told us about the best parts, like getting to be creative and designing things that improve her community and make people’s dreams into some thing real!
After hearing from Molly, we wanted to conduct our own test of building materials. The girls built small LEGO houses with no attached roofs. They then chose from a selection of roofing materials (grass, sticks, LEGO bricks, tape, cardboard, paper, etc.) and ran tests to see which materials proved to be most waterproof when sprayed from a bottle. They discovered that the type of material matters as much as how you use it ( for example, bundled sticks or woven grass led to different results than loose piles of either), and that particular architectural features might improve your success - such as building out eaves so that the water isn’t running straight off your roof and onto the walls of your house. That led us to take a walk around the building and challenge the girls to an architectural features scavenger hunt! Molly helped everyone identify all the different features Garland Mill used to make our building strong, safe and comfy inside!
Molly explained that in her work process she starts by planning and drawing up drafts of a design idea on the computer, and then other people use tools to make something real from her designs. So the girls gave this process a try by using a basic form of computer-aided design to make a sticker or stencil design. We then used them to try out a new tool in the WMSI maker space - a vinyl cutter! No one made a new building like Molly, but everyone did successfully use their computer design to create of something they could take home in the real world!
We kicked off our last day of camp by going back to the beginning. We re-visited the definition of an inventor we had written together, focusing on the part we all agreed on most: good inventions should improve the lives of people that use them! We put on our thinking caps and took a walk around Littleton, exploring both a public space designed for relaxation: the park and trail along the river, and the bustling commercial space on Main Street. As we walked, we looked around town and brainstormed ways that we could help improve the lives of people visiting or living here in town. We observed several great art installments that offered up inspiration, and noticed a few challenges (especially the idea that there were SO many things to do - it was a lot to keep track of!).
Back in the maker space, we got down to business and wrote up some plans. The girls were allowed to use any of the skills and tools we had practiced with earlier in the week to bring their new creations to life. They thought back through all of the skills and talents of the inventive women we’d met along the way, and drew inspiration for tackling their own projects.
Ultimately, we had two girls who wanted to add more options to the interactive art in town to help lift people’s mood and entertain both locals and visitors. One decided to invent a prototype for a Makey Makey driven staircase to span between Main Street and the River District. Each step would play a different note when you walked on it. The other took a leaf out of Molly’s book and drew up designs for a shady sidewalk station where people could stop and find all the supplies they need, plus step-by-step instructions for creating an origami pet!
Four girls chose to create inventions that would help visitors feel more welcome and learn more about Littleton while they are here. Three joined up ad crafted a beautiful new welcome sign (on the vinyl cutter), plus an informational station that highlights the top 5 best tourist attractions in the area and where to find them (using a Makey Makey and Scratch). One focused on designing a 3D model for a new museum which will house some interesting exhibits showcasing the natural world around Littleton, and a bit of the social history of the area as well.
Finally, inspired by the teamwork that Zibi mentioned was so important in moving big things forward, two girls were looking out for everyone’s safety - to ensure that all could enjoy the invention’s of the other girls. One invented a machine that would pull the nectar from some of the local edible plants and allow you to mix the tasty treat into soda or juice that you could then enjoy while visiting the top 5 attractions on a hot day (to keep cool and avoid dehydration). The other started a new line of dog collars that help to indicate to passerby whether a dog is friendly and would like to be approached, or if a dog doesn’t really like to be petted by strangers on the street.
I think I would move into a town these girls were in charge of! We were certainly impressed all week long by the curiosity, creativity and passion that these girls brought to the maker space each day. It was an inspiring week that really highlighted the power of women and girls who boldly tackle life with innovative minds and creative problem solving!