Design fun at UMass Lowell camp

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By STEFANIE SCARLETT Sun Staff

LOWELL -- He wasn't exactly building a better mousetrap, but Adam Smith of Billerica created a pretty impressive car powered by the rodent-catching contraption at UMass Lowell's Design Camp.

Early yesterday afternoon, he was optimistic his car, a mousetrap screwed onto a piece of wood with plastic disc wheels, would run when it was finished. Adam, 12, said early tests showed it rolled well.

A thin metal rod tied with string to the trap's spring is supposed to move the car when it's released. By day's end, the campers were testing their finished products with mixed results, but Adam's victory was short-lived.

"Mine worked, but it broke," he said.

During the five-day camp, his group created several other contraptions, including windmill-powered cranes fashioned with barbecue skewers, duct tape, index cards and yogurt cups.

That's the goal of the hands-on camp: Using simple materials to let kids witness the laws of physics in action, said director Doug Prime.

By the time camp ends Aug. 4, 300 students in grades 5 through 10 will have participated in nine noisy sessions with intriguing titles like "Extreme Robotics" and "Smash, Crash and Walk Away," designing and building everything from mini hot-air balloons to robots to strobe lights.

Prime organized the first camp last summer, running his "Mechanical and Electrical Gizmos" program in three, week-long sessions. The camp's popularity among students and their parents, who foot the bill, prompted Prime and Francis College of Engineering Dean Krishna Vedula to expand the topics.

Prime is teaching his gizmos session again this summer, which he said kids find fun, but frustrating at times.

"They create their own answers here. It's not like I have everything thought out -- there are a million ways they can do it," he said.

This year, 50 girls registered for camp, up from only three last summer. Prime would still like to see more girls join next year, and is considering having a session just for them.

In Prime's program, Heather Shattuck, 13, of Townsend, was busy trying to trace and cut a piece of Styrofoam. She thinks her candy safe will come in handy when finished.

"If someone touches the box, the alarm should go off," she explained, showing the wiring inside the small safe.

While making mechanical gizmos can be daunting at first, "once you get the hang of it, it's easier," she said.

Down the hall, Jon Dirubbo and Victor Vazquez, both of Lowell, were trying to re-program their Lego Mindstorms robot to turn properly -- a problem many of their fellow campers were having.

"One wheel isn't turning, the motor isn't working," Victor, 13, said as he crouched on the floor, peering at the robot as Jon, 12, manned the computer.

Today they'll have to race their chariot-style robot around a figure-eight track, competing against other teams. They finished second in an earlier competition in which robots scooped up Skittles for two minutes. Their robot picked up six; the winners got 25.

At another computer, Marc Johnson, 15, of Chelmsford, was puzzled by programming errors. While camp has been fun, he said he isn't destined to become a computer engineer.

In flight school -- the only two-week camp -- students built gliders of Styrofoam, hot-air balloons of tissue paper and battery-powered airplanes from a kit.

"The goal of it all is to give them some challenges and make it fun. I can sneak the science in," said Westford Academy teacher Bill Bowen, who was running the session. The longer camp allows students to perfect their projects and see how minor changes can make their contraptions better, faster or stronger.

The most difficult part of the process is the technical drawing, said Jiayun Xu, 13, of Billerica. "I don't like those. They take forever, all that measuring," she said.

In the hectic "smash and crash" lab, budding engineer J.J. Donnelly of Littleton was putting the finishing touches on the collapsible nine-foot tower that he and a partner built out of tubes. A cushioned, wooden platform hoisted up the tower by rope will be outfitted with a tiny camera, filled with different objects and dropped so students can see what affect free-falling has, in a simulation of zero gravity.

"I think it's a great learning experience," Donnelly, 14, said.

At the end of the day, Corey Welch, 10, of Dracut, still was trying to get his mousetrap car to run in a straight line.

He decided that his favorite project of the week had been watching a reaction of vinegar and baking soda in a tube, which bubbled up and popped a plastic ball into the air, he said. He's already looking forward to camp next summer.

"It's fun. I want to come back," he said.