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Student Ideas Come to Life at Camp

IDEA camp lightbulb logo

By Nicole DeFeudis

LOWELL — After about a week of constructing an underwater robot from PVC pipe, propellers and pool noodles, rising eighth-grader Walter Palacil drops it into the pool.

The front of the robot lifts up as Palacil navigates it around the shallow end of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Campus Recreation Center pool — it is too buoyant.

Palacil made his robot in IDEA Camp, a collaboration between the UMass Lowell Francis College of Engineering and Lowell Public Schools.

The contraption can submerge, spin, travel across the pool and resurface. Now, it needs weight to hold down the front end.

“Where should I put the weight?” he asks a camp instructor, who encourages him to think about it logically.

After mulling it over, Palacil uses string to tie small silver weights to the front of the robot. Much better.

It’s not every day that most teenagers build robots, pick up a soldering iron, or code a video game. But it is at IDEA Camp, where Lowell teachers guide kids through week-long science and engineering workshops.

The program began about 20 years ago as UMass Lowell’s Design Camp. It evolved into IDEA Camp about seven years ago when UMass Lowell partnered with the public school system, said Lowell Public Schools Science and Social Studies Coordinator Martha Cohn.

This year, close to 300 students attended three week-long workshops, ranging from crime science to architecture to coding.

“This is a really transformative program for students,” said LZ Nunn, executive director of Lowell-based Project LEARN, which helps fund IDEA Camp.

The experience is beneficial for both students and teachers, Nunn and Cohn explained: The students gain science and problem-solving skills, while teachers practice new techniques for hands-on learning.

Plus, the program is fun — both students and teachers say they can’t wait to return to camp, Cohn said.

Most workshops take place in the UMass Lowell Olney Science Center. In the Carnival Contraptions session Thursday, rising fifth- and sixth-grade students tinkered away at games, marshmallow launchers and automated Kool-Aid mixers.

STEM Academy math and science teacher Erinn McLaughlin said she lives for the light bulb moments — when kids realize they can create something complicated all on their own.

McLaughlin watched the children saw planks of wood, strip wire and fiddle with gears. Haylee Sor, a rising seventh-grader at Butler Middle School, used alligator clips to wire colored LED lights. Later, the lights will illuminate a sign for her carnival game.

“I think the most fun part is working with the wires,” something she has never done before, she said. When she grows up, Sor is interested in becoming an engineer.

In another room, members of the You Code Girl workshop experimented with Sphero balls: electronic golf balls you can code and control with a smart phone.

At the touch of a screen, glowing multi-colored golf balls zoomed around the room.

“My big thing about coding is it’s critical thinking,” said instructor Kara Wilkins, who is a district technology integration specialist for the public schools. If a golf ball doesn’t make it to a desired destination, the teens can alter the code to change variables such as speed.

And while she is there for guidance, Wilkins encourages the students to troubleshoot on their own. Trial and error is the best way to learn, she said.

IDEA Camp costs $180 per week for Lowell residents and $280 per week for non-residents. Thanks to donations, though, the program is able to offer scholarships to 70% of students enrolled, which lower the price to $40.

The program began July 8 this summer and will run through July 22. At the end of each week, most students get to take their creations home.

“We got to do lots of different things with things we’ve never done before,” said Taija Bell, a rising eighth-grader at Joseph G. Pyne Arts Magnet School, as she made finishing touches to her underwater robot.

The most challenging part of the workshop, she said, was adding the propellers. But she did it.

That, explained Nunn, is what IDEA Camp is all about: Giving teenagers the confidence to do what they never thought possible.