By From the Lowell Sun
By Regina Tavani
LOWELL -- In the otherwise abandoned halls of UMass Lowell, planes fly, hot-air balloons lift off, and animals roam through natural habitats.
While it sounds like a scene straight out of Jumanji, it's actually just another week at DesignCamp, a science and technology summer program celebrating its 10th anniversary.
DesignCamp, founded by mechanical engineer Doug Prime as an outreach initiative to expose children to engineering, gives campers an opportunity to develop their own video games, submarines and other kinds of technological creations. Weeklong sessions are offered throughout the summer for children in grades 5-11.
In the "Electric Jungle" camp last week, 11-year-old Lisa Lam of Lowell worked on a mechanical elephant that can spin its ears and even speak. She combined wire with copper to power the motor, explaining that copper acts as a conductor.
In just four days, Lam, who had never done any kind of engineering before, said she had learned a lot.
She likes the independence the program gives her. "You get to do it yourself, see what's wrong, see what's right," she said.
This kind of self-teaching is exactly what Prime had in mind when he established the program. His goal with DesignCamp, he said, was more than just getting youths interested in engineering careers.
"It's about getting them to be more independent problem-solvers and risk-takers," he explained. "They're not used to having this sort of freedom. They're not spoon-fed here; they have to think on their own."
Bent over the school swimming pool at the "Sea Mobiles" session, 13-year-old Sam Hertzel of Lexington was doing just that.
The remote-operated vehicle he had built to retrieve swim toys from the depths of the pool had a glitch. The motor was running backward, and he needed to fix it.
His instructor, Mitt Wanzer, is continually amazed at how these challenges transform the campers in such a short time.
"They sort of half-know what they're getting into," he said. "And then they're set free doing it."
Hertzel, like many campers, already knows he wants to be an engineer. And for less sure students, DesignCamp often offers something of a conversion experience.
Groton resident Alex Meijer, 17, works as an intern, supervising and assisting campers. He said that when he arrived for his first session in fifth grade, "I had no idea what I wanted to do. I came here on a fluke and now I've never missed a year since."
He plans to study electrical or computer engineering in college.
Not surprisingly, DesignCamp has a proven track record of getting its campers into engineering careers, often launched right at UMass Lowell.
In fact, more than 5 percent of the freshmen engineering class is comprised of DesignCamp alumni.
Adam McLaughlin, a junior engineering major at UMass Lowell, attended DesignCamp for six years as a camper and intern, and now works there. He cites his DesignCamp experience as having a huge role in his decision to go into engineering.
Of course, with science and engineering come gender stereotypes, which the camp has been working hard to eliminate.
Enrollment among girls has increased over time, and "Flight School" instructor Bill Bowen noted that the one girl in his class is by far his best performer.
Another hurdle DesignCamp must now jump is the recession, which has decreased funding and raised tuition. The usually over-enrolled camp still has open spaces, which can be filled for half tuition ($273 discounted from $530), Prime said.
Even in spite of the recession, major funders including Raytheon Co. and 3M Co. continue to sponsor a number of scholarships for qualifying campers. Of the 325 campers attending this summer, nearly one-third received scholarships.
In an age when many children spend summers parked in front of the television, there's something refreshing about the innovation and creativity taking place with DesignCampers.
UMass student and DesignCamp veteran Jordan Tye noted, "It's hard enough to even get these kids to go to lunch or take a break."
Parents and students interested in registering for the camp's remaining sessions should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (978) 934-4690.