'We build cool stuff'

07/22/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By ELIZABETH PECOS, Sun Correspondent
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Maggie Wilcox's attention is focused on the screen before her as the 12-year-old plays the multi-level computer game called "Maze."

Eleven-year-old Steven Pape is crouched down, winding an electric toy frog that jumps across the floor.

Playing computer games and winding up mechanical toys are normal activities for any sixth- or seventh-grader. Except that Maggie and Steven built the toys they are playing with.

Some adults' electrical ability spans screwing in a lightbulb or turning on the microwave, but the kids attending University of Massachusetts Lowell's Summer Design Camp can not only operate electric mechanisms, they can build them.

"Our program motto is 'We build cool stuff!' and the camp really delivers," says camp director Douglas Prime.

Every summer, students in grades 5-11 gather at UMass Lowell's engineering building to attend one- and two-week workshops offered by the Design Camp. The science and engineering based classes teach the kids the basics of design while also engaging them in hands-on experiments to explore their ideas.

Students in grades 7 and 8 are busy creating graphics for the new computer games they've made using Game Maker software in one workshop.

"I've always been interested in computers," says Wilcox, a seventh-grader from Carlisle, "I did this for fun and now I am meeting new friends and playing games all day."

In another class, Electric Jungle, sixth-graders are spread out at a large workshop table covered with capacitors, relay switches, cams and cardboard used to make electric animals that walk, talk, jump and even fly.

"These kids are making animals that can do multiple functions. They come up with things I never even thought of," says Diana Kinney, a sixth-grade math and science teacher for Sharon Public schools who works at Design Camp every summer.

One of the students in Kinney's class, sixth-grader Robbie Geada, 10, of Chelmsford, is busy fitting copper wires into cams on his electric animal he calls "The Walker" so that the legs will move and make it walk across the table.

"One of my favorite things to do is to invent," says Geada, who wants to be an engineer someday.

Pape is also in the Electric Jungle class and is occupied with fastening green felt on the top of his jumping mechanical frog.

"My favorite thing about camp is you get to keep everything you make," says Pape, a sixth-grader from Tyngsboro.

The camp's mission is to inspire students to pursue the fields of science and engineering and hopefully grow up to have a career in either.

The program, which runs from July 10 to Aug. 4, costs $340 to attend and includes the workshop, tool kit and materials that each student uses.

Students spend a week in their chosen class, learning the basics and building models of their ideas. Instructors are there more to answer questions than teach, so that each child comes up with their own solutions to building their designs.

"The program has an open-ended design factor," says Prime, "There are lots of solutions to every problem and every project is different for that reason."

The week culminates with a Design Camp show on Friday where the kids show off their projects to their families and have a pizza party.

The program is in its sixth year, and grows in popularity with each passing summer.

Prime has worked hard in making the camp an all-inclusive program for kids interested in science and engineering. Organizations such as Noyce Foundation, Tyco Electronics and EMC Corporation work together to provide scholarships for students who need financial aid.

The program also works to recruit girls through UMass Lowell's WISE Program (Women in Science and Engineering). The first summer only one girl enrolled in the camp, now 35 percent of the students are female. It helps that some of the workshops, such as Architect's Studio, are girl-only.

The kids are putting the finishing touches on their projects for the Design Show later. Mason Glidden and Emma Foley, both 14-year-old ninth-graders in their fourth year at Design Camp, are preparing to win the Sea Mobiles race later by making sure their PVC pipes are secured and their remote is functioning properly. With a sea mobile name like "The Flying Fish" they have a very good chance.