Adventures of Inventive Girls

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.

The definition of an inventor - according to our campers.


The definition of an inventor - according to our campers.

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.

Q&A with Zibi Turtle

Q&A with Zibi Turtle

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!

Katie Fiegenbaum sharing examples of farming techniques

Katie Fiegenbaum sharing examples of farming techniques

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.

Campers test a roof design for their LEGO house, advised by Molly Maloy

Campers test a roof design for their LEGO house, advised by Molly Maloy

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!

Inventor’s Camp takes Littleton by storm!

Inventor’s Camp takes Littleton by storm!

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!

WMSi Tables

By: Sam Crosby

With WMSi’s move into our exciting new location in Littleton, we found ourselves with far more space than ever before. With this space came the ability to be more purposeful in our design and use of the room. We host everything from summer camps to teacher professional development events in our maker space, so flexibility is key. This was our primary motivation when it came to creating tables for the space. 

As with most design projects, our tables started out with just an idea--or several, rather. We wanted the table tops to be able to flip vertical with a whiteboard surface, we needed them to roll, and we needed them to be sturdy enough to serve as work benches while retaining a professional appearance. 

Naturally, we did consider commercially available options as well, but the tables within our budget did not meet all of our design criteria. With a shop and my time at our disposal this summer, we decided to engineer & design our own WMSi tables. While this met our design constraints, we also gained the less tangible benefit of communication of WMSi ideals and branding. By showcasing how we use the engineering process in a real-life application with a budget of several thousand dollars and a timeframe of a couple months, we demonstrate the reasoning for the use of this process in our camps. It can at times be challenging for some of our younger campers to make the connection between camp projects and real-life applications, and telling the backstory of the very tables they sit at could illuminate this connection.

Using our CAD and laser cutting tools, I created a model-scale prototype to prove the concept for our table design. Using a simple T-slot in the top bracket, we gained the flip top functionality without the need for hinges. Using the CNC machine only for the small bracket and utilizing simple 2x4 framing for the rest, costs were kept down while strength was maintained. The laser cutter allowed for rapid prototyping as several changes were made to increase stability. The models also proved their value when I presented to the whole team, in that having a visual to go along with our discussion and decision-making process helped everyone picture the more abstract ideas better. This part was instrumental in bringing the WMSi table from idea to reality. 

Laser Cut Prototype of the WMSi Table

Laser Cut Prototype of the WMSi Table

Once the team was satisfied with how the small-scale prototype operated, I began construction on a full-scale prototype. Based on experiences with this, we continued to follow the engineering process as a means to inform the many changes we made to the design. In the below picture, I am adding the caster wheels and compensating for their additional height by dropping the mounting point down for the top bracket. 

Make it Roll!

Make it Roll!

With our concept proven at both model and full-scale with prototypes, I began constructing the remaining 6 tables we needed. The base portions shown in the photo above were straightforward, but we continued to iterate on the design for the tabletops themselves. Early on, WMSi learned how awesome whiteboard tables are, so this was a paramount aspect of the tops. The challenge was to make the weak, low-quality showerboard into a sturdy and reasonably professional-looking tabletop. By laminating with plywood, finishing the edges with paint, and adding oak edge stripping, we mostly achieved this. In WMSi fashion though, we have identified several changes we would make to the tops the next time around. Yet again, the engineering process at work with our WMSi tables!

 
 

Engineering Real-World Solutions

By: Tom Higginbotham

My name is Tom, and I have a problem. I’m obsessed with my backyard ice rink. More to the point, I am obsessed with crafting a surface whose only variations from perfect are in the nanometer range. It’s an impossible dream, as the variables between my dream and me are as complex as they are numerous.

This season’s ice that was closest to perfection.

This season’s ice that was closest to perfection.

Still, there’s something deeply compelling about facing these variables, recognizing which ones I can impact (e.g., keeping the ice surface free from heat-absorbing leaves and needles), those I can not (e.g., 60 degree days in February), and doing my level-best to design solutions to those over which I have some control.

Each twig or pine needle frond will absorb more heat than its surrounding ice, causing divots in the ice. DIVOTS!!!

Each twig or pine needle frond will absorb more heat than its surrounding ice, causing divots in the ice. DIVOTS!!!

Am I an engineer? No.

Do I engineer? Yes.

As a process, the soul of engineering is systematic ‘problem’ solving, or as the NGSS puts it, “any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems (NGSS Appendix I).” The ‘systematic’ part of design includes: defining problems (and the parameters of a successful solution), developing solutions, and optimizing those solutions.

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The process of engineering is pretty straightforward, and accessible to many. The NGSS authors recognize the ripeness of the opportunity that engineering design offers for our K-12 students, especially for engaging students who traditionally may not have seen themselves as scientists or engineers (including many females and rural students). Specifically, “by solving meaningful problems through engineering in local contexts,... students.... come to view science as relevant to their lives and future.”

So in spirit, the NGSS take a giant positive step by so explicitly emphasizing Engineering. Additionally, the key to authentically engaging our K-12 students, helping them envision themselves as engineers, is the same thing that drives my clinically diagnosable obsession to design solutions with my rink: I’m working on ‘problems’ that I sincerely want to solve. Not just because they’re interesting or challenging. Not because they have the allure of technology’s bells and whistles. Not because they’re an assignment my teacher gave me. I want to solve these ice problems - and this is so important - because it’s a problem that matters to me. I want to solve them because I want to solve them.

Leaf-induced divot. Not visible: the tears on my computer keyboard.

Leaf-induced divot. Not visible: the tears on my computer keyboard.

So back to the rink. One constant throughout the winter, and between periods on a hockey rink, is that resurfacing requires water. I’m on hand-pulled Zamboni version 3.0, which I have to say, is amazing. But it requires water. The best time to resurface is when it’s so cold that by the time I get to the far side of the rink, the near side that I’ve just laid down has already frozen. However, that same delicious quick-freezing water is the source of my yet unsatisfactorily solved problem: having a consistently reliable hose through which water can flow.

The problem I want to solve? Have reliable water hoses that are clear of the frozen remains of their previous use. The parameters for success?

  • Process that takes less than five minutes, from end of watering to storage of hose

  • Storage of hose is outside

  • Water flows during next use of hose

The main issues have to do with water’s properties. It finds the lowest point. It adheres to the inner walls of the hose. It coheres with itself. It freezes quickly when there’s a high surface-area- to-volume ratio. In plain English, no matter the system I’ve used for draining the hoses, absent a perfectly flat surface and perfectly flat hose, there is always a low spot in which enough water accumulates to create a frozen plug.

My first design solution, a bit sad in retrospect, was to simply roll up the hose using one of those garden hose rollers that work so well in the summer. Boy, do those provide some outstanding low points for water to accumulate and plug. I tried bringing the hoses into the basement. Wife said no. I’ve tried, with various degrees of success, the ‘porch pull’: starting with one end of the hose up on the porch (about 15 feet higher than the rink’s level), slowly pulling up the rest of the hose, draining water through its ends as it reaches its changing high-point. I’ve tried doing that twice, once forward and once backward. I’ve tried leaving the water turned on with a trickle. In every circumstance, at least 50% of the time, I end up with a frozen plug somewhere in the hose.  My best luck has come from doing ‘double-porch-pull’ and then laying the hose in big loops on the flattest part of the yard. So, my designing has no choice but to continue. Because I must have perfect ice.

As a learner, it’s exciting to look back at what I now know viscerally that I didn’t consider before beginning this work: when faced with a fatal flaw to a design that I REALLY want to solve, I have no choice but to reflect, think, learn, and design. And again, that’s the key (I think) to using design to teach our students science concepts that will persist much deeper and longer in them than would a list of memorized terms or multiple choice test items.

Using design as a learning hook has tremendous potential. It can also become the latest in a long string of truly good educational ideas that don’t live up to their billing. Have students work on problems that they want to solve because they want to solve them.

Are K-12 students professional engineers? No.

Do they engineer? Perhaps.

Can they engineer? Certainly.

Will they engineer? If it matters to them.

Diving Into the Buffet of Maker Tools

By Mike Carmon, WMSI Instructor

How many tools does a Maker have at their disposal? That amount is not necessarily a quantifiable one, as the array of tools is wide-ranging and ever-expanding! STEM Explorers got a taste of a number of these exciting tools during our last on-site camp in Bethlehem near the end of July: Maker Camp!

Appetizer Course: Animation

Stop Motion & Replacement Animation are fun and versatile tools to utilize in movie-making, and our campers had the opportunity to dabble in these techniques by creating their own movies using SAM Animation software. Replacement Animation (turning one object into another) was one technique in particular we emphasized during this week, and our campers' creativity took it from there! LEGO piece characters were casting spells on other characters, turning them into cats, mice, bridges, and buildings! We also had plastic balls appearing to melt into a heap of LEGO pieces, and pipe cleaners transforming into long, slithery animals!

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Second Course: Renewable Energy

Campers tackled a fun and new-to-WMSI challenge by attempting to “rescue” a “stranded” LEGO person by way of their own homemade wind-powered turbine. Using simple materials such as cardboard, wooden dowels, paper, tape, and string, our STEM Explorers crafted their designs and used simulated wind energy (a fan) to put them to the test! It was a great lesson in the power available in renewable energy resources, and also a fun way for our campers to unlock engineering feats with simple materials they can find around their home. And despite the precise premise, their was no shortage of creativity in the individual designs of each group--all of which were able to successfully rescue our LEGO person-in-distress!

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Third Course: Helicopters

Making things fly is an arguably unmatched feat of engineering, and during Maker camp we demonstrated the ability to accomplish such a task with everyday items once more! Straws, bottles, q-tips, rubber bands, and a bit of hot glue were all we needed for this one, and the excitement was contagious as we tested our rubber band helicopters outside, watching them soar higher and higher above! The rubber band acts as a clever method of storing potential energy, and by harnessing that energy and turning it into kinetic energy, the rubber bands of our helicopters were engineered to turn our propellers, allowing them to fly!

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Entree Course: Marble Runs

A roller coaster is a thrilling ride for humans, and to simulate this experience for a marble proved to be a fun and intricate project for our Makers at camp this year! We had cardboard pathways dangling from the ceiling with string reinforcements, runs that snaked around corners and looped beside walls, and funnels crafted from recycled bottles and plates! It was a great amount of fun helping out with the stringed-to-the-ceiling marble run, and it was also particularly enjoyable to see campers use tongue depressors in a novel way to increase friction and slow down the marble's ride! The challenge was to create a run that took 10 seconds for a marble to traverse, and our campers proved up to this re-MAR-ka-BLE challenge!

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Dessert Course: Moving Robots

Robotics is always an enjoyable, engrossing, and inspiring topic to tackle, and we spent the final day of Maker Camp making robots move in two ways: first, without wheels. Then, with the use of wheels, but with the added ability of traversing all sorts of terrain (a la ATV’s). Despite the weather’s lack of cooperation for outside testing, our instructors constructed a simulated indoor ATV course, and all of our campers wrapped up camp by testing out their creations on the course!

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In addition to these activities, we dabbled in other aspects of Maker tools: programming, game design, and more! It was a jam-packed week of excitement and engineering, and we’re already looking forward to our next Maker-course meal!!

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A Day in the Life of a WMSI Counselor

Think back to your first high school job: not cutting grass for your parents or taking care of your neighbor's dog; your first real job, with paychecks, taxes, and a consistent schedule. What was that like? If you were like most American teens, you might remember babysitting, scooping ice cream, or washing dishes. They aren't the most rewarding jobs or the most entertaining. But I can't say the same about mine.

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I knew that my job was going to be different from the beginning. As a 17-year-old, you don't expect much out of summer work, just something to put gas in your beat-up car really. Yet when I walked into WMSI headquarters for the first time, my eyes lit up. In that little office space on Park Avenue, technology was everywhere. Robots of every function and design crowded the shelves, 3D printers hummed away on tables, and busy workers in matching blue t-shirts lined the room. Suddenly my misconceptions about what my line of work was going to be were thrown out the window, and I knew that this was how I wanted to spend the next few months.

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Now it is my second year with WMSI, and on a cool July morning at 7:15am, my alarm goes off as usual. After hopping in the shower and throwing on my own (now slightly worn out) blue WMSI t-shirt, I grab a bagel on my way out the door. When I stroll into our basement classroom, my coworkers (many of them my age) are hard at work. July is the heart of summer camp season, and we are prepared for an especially active day today. The usual morning routine is put in motion with all hands on deck. I help set up our activities tent on the lawn, while laptops, the projector, and other miscellaneous electronics are brought over from the office.

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As 9:00 rolls around, excited campers begin to tromp in, and we get down to business right off the bat. The kids happily doodle or fold paper airplanes around me, and soon the classroom is filled with different aircraft whizzing past my ears.

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By the time the last camper has arrived and settled in, we are ready to move on to our first daily activity. The computer program Scratch is a favorite for this, and within the next few minutes everyone is engulfed in their own imaginative stories. Scratch can be difficult at times, and there are always many requests to be dealt with. This makes me a wish granter of sorts, and for that hour or so before snack time, I am tasked with making all sorts of crazy, beautiful ideas come to life. My favorite request comes from a young boy who wants to turn a fortune cookie into a Boeing 737 and then fly away. The look on his face when it finally works is priceless.

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At the conclusion of our snack break and a whirlwind game of sharks and minnows, we all head back inside to begin our next activity, which is new this year: all-terrain robots. The campers are broken into pairs to begin work while I design a course for them. The final product is complete with a pump track, a gravel pit, and a steeply curved wall at the end (à la American Ninja Warrior). Construction and brainstorming are in many ways just as big a part of my job as actual instruction, and in this instance, the work pays off and everyone is having a blast.

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Upon finishing lunch and our afternoon game, the kids are once again herded inside for the final activity of the day. This time we are making marble runs--an activity also new this year--out of various crafting supplies. The kids use their persistent imaginations without fail, and before I know it, another object whizzes past my ear; a marble of course. I look up to find a massive structure suspended from the ceiling with string, and chuckle to myself, "Why not?".

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Before we know it, the day has gone by, and the campers all tromp back out the door to waiting parents, leaving us to try and make the classroom look like it wasn't just hit by a Category 5 hurricane. But, much to my surprise as always, we manage to sweep, sort, and put away everything in due time. From there all the counselors head outside to debrief how the day went: favorite parts, possible changes, and even best funny quotes are shared.

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As I stroll back to my car, I think of how lucky I am not to have a "normal teenage job". Instead of sitting behind a counter or at a sink, I get to share my love of technology and all of its benefits with others. And by teaching children these useful skills, I am giving back to my community as well; raising a future generation of independent, creative thinkers from my area. Whenever someone asks me what I do for work, I usually laugh and state, "Oh I play with Legos," but in reality what I do is more similar to what's printed on the t-shirt I wear every day. I invent, design, make, craft, code, and most importantly, imagine.

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Maker Tools For Designing Games

By: Mike Carmon

Think there’s only one or two tools at your disposal to design a fun, engaging, interactive game with your friends? Not so! During our week of Game Design Camp in July, we demonstrated the vast array of maker tools a game designer has in their arsenal, and despite a jam-packed week of game designing, we only scratched the surface of what we can create!

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We started off simply with using perhaps the most powerful tool we have completely on it’s own: our minds! Crafting a story one word at a time, we rounded the circle of campers multiple times and developed characters, setting, and a plot to create our very own story! We quickly realized how we can create something from nothing, no matter what tools we may or may not have.

As the week progressed, we utilized more and more maker tools to design our own games: LEGO EV3 robotics-inspired tag games was a popular one, where campers used coded color sensors instead of their hands to "tag" each other. In addition, there were Minecraft games coded in Python on a Raspberry Pi, and even a catapult-launching challenge with our very own WMSI-made 3D-printed catapults!

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Our campers used their storytelling abilities to transform a story into their own board games. In one board game, the objective was the efficient training of sled dogs, and certain moves on the board garnered the player additional supplies and training techniques to successfully complete this task. Even baseball was made into a fun board game version, where a spinner determined the result of a player's at-bat turn. It was fun watching the campers take their passions and mold them into an engaging, multiplayer board game!

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One of my personal highlights of Game Design Camp this year was our final activity of the week: the construction of a maze out of cardboard and classroom materials (chairs, tables, etc.). The WMSI-spin: the maze had to be navigated with our eyes closed and with only the help of a coded EV3 LEGO MINDSTORMS ultrasonic sensor. Our campers fully embraced this challenge and got to work on a wonderfully intricate and tricky maze, and then coded their sensors to detect objects in their vicinity.

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One by one, each camper took a turn venturing through the maze: crawling, jumping, sneaking, and tip-toeing, we quickly realized how engineers can create some pretty cool solutions to real-world problems, making the world a better place one line of code at a time!

Is it time for our next Game Design camp yet?

Young Makers: Animations, Wigglebots, Helicopters, Box Forts!

by Mike Carmon

WMSI’s summer camp season kicked off this year with our young makers camp--a fun and exciting place for our younger STEM explorers to delve into their maker side! We opened the door to the possibilities of STEM with creating our very own Stop Motion Animation movies to commence our first young maker camp of the season. Our campers brought to life laser-cut cardboard cut-outs, legos, and other materials with their videos, all the while working with their partners and brainstorming exciting ideas. 

Stop Motion Animation!

Stop Motion Animation!

We debuted a brand new WMSI activity on Day 2, prompting our young makers to make their very own tops out of cardboard, wooden dowels, and different sorts of weighted materials. They tested the effectiveness of different shapes, heights, weights, and sizes on the “spinni-ness” of their homemade tops, giving them a simple yet powerful lesson in the iterative engineering process: brainstorm, design, test, redesign, retest, etc, etc…

Testing out our tops!

Testing out our tops!

The feature of Day 3, and the finale of our first young maker camp of the season, was another all-new experience for WMSI camps: construct a box fort! Early that morning, instructors assembled a bunch of boxes for our young makers to choose from for the purposes of constructing their portion of the fort. That afternoon, they were all given materials and a section of the fort to design out on our lawn.

Box Fort Construction!

Box Fort Construction!

We liked to think of that hour as “managed and productive chaos”, as all of our campers went to work with our instructors to produce a truly fun and sizable structure, complete with doors and windows, tunnels, rooms, a lookout tower, a periscope, LED lighting, and more! It was an hour of extremely enjoyable work, and we can’t wait to do this one again!!

Enjoying the fruits of our labor!

Enjoying the fruits of our labor!

This summer we shook things up a bit and held a 2-day Young Maker Camp opportunity a few weeks later, with additional STEM activities and challenges! That included the construction of wigglebots, a WMSI favorite, which consists of making a moving robot driven by a simple DC motor and attached gear. The motor-gear combo creates a centripetal force that allows the robot body (made from common materials such as recyclables, rubber bands, zip ties and wooden dowels) to move around.

Another brand-new project we launched with this 2-day camp was rubber-band helicopter construction! Using pieces fashioned out of straws, rubber bands, paper clips, Q-tips, and some other simple materials, students all crafted their very own helicopters! We wrapped up camp with helicopter test flights, and watched in awe as they took flight!

Making things fly is always fun!

Making things fly is always fun!

WMSI Inventor's Camp for Girls : Filling our inventor's Tool Box!

My favorite thing about girl's camp is the variety of programs and skills we explore! For 5 days the girl's are challenged to learn new things and expand their knowledge on everything from robots and 3D printing to coding and APP building!


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Early in the week, coding EV3's was a very exciting activity! The girls had 2 design challenges. First, they built a DrawBot that they coded to draw on it's own! Next, they were given an even tougher challenge: get the Robot up the slack line! They worked hard on their robots, iterated a variety of designs and stayed focused on their goals. They were all smiles and didn't want the days to end!

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Sometimes they were found helping each other understand how to use TinkerCad to 3D print their designs. It was so encouraging to see the girls work together to invent and solve problems!

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Using a coding platform called Scratch, we could build games, stories or greeting cards!

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We were lucky to have a visitor come over and help us build helicopters! Building with our hands and physical tools, is a big part of being an inventor!

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One of our most challenging and exciting inventor's projects was using a platform called Thunkable to design APPs to help our community. This gave the girls a lot of freedom to think about how they could help, design and use their apps. Many continued to work on them during their free time!

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Last day FUN! I think the most appealing design challenge was Stop Motion Animation! Many girls chose to continue working on this as part of their last day.

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3D Catapult Launch contest! When given parameters, it was interesting to see the girls problem solve and work to launch their object the farthest!

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Many girls worked hard on APP Design!

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Our Tool Box is full!

A WMSI First: Summer Coding Camp

by Mike Carmon

Our two-day coding camp was a WMSI first this summer, as we dove more into the different sorts of programming languages and platforms available for our young STEM Explorers. For Coding Camp this year, we focused on three in particular: Scratch, Python, and LEGO EV3 MINDSTORMS. From coding stories and games in Scratch to building massive structures in Minecraft with only a few lines of code, we demonstrated the exciting true power and efficiency of computer programming!

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WMSI utilizes Scratch for many of it’s programs, including our Mobile STEM Lab as well as most of our summer camps. Block-based coding is a wonderful way to get one’s feet wet in the world of coding, particularly those with a more visual mind that can find text-based coding a bit more daunting (I speak from experience here!). During Coding Camp, our campers used Scratch to code their very own stories. There were princesses that turned into dragons, wizards casting spells on other objects, and dueling knights too! We’d use different challenges to teach all sorts of different commands in Scratch. Loops, if/then statements, switches, etc. truly come alive and reveal their power for STEM Explorers when these commands provide the means to make magic happen on the screen before their very eyes! It was wonderful to see our campers’ creativity with the Scratch activities as well, as a diverse spectrum of story ideas blossomed from the same blank slate with which they all began!

We also explored EV3 LEGO MINDSTORMS block-based coding, which allowed our campers to program EV3 LEGO robots to make decisions. Using touch sensors, our EV3’s played different sounds. Using color sensors, our EV3’s made sounds after detecting the programmed color. Using ultrasonic (motion) sensors, we made a fun maze of sensors through which our campers had to traverse without setting off the sensors! The true diversity of tasks one can accomplish with coding was surely demonstrated!

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We also used a block (no pun intended) of Coding Camp to tap into a little bit of text-based coding in Python. Though the programs were largely written by our awesome team of WMSI instructors beforehand, we empowered our STEM Explorers to tinker with the text-based code, and observe what would happen to their Minecraft structures when small changes were made to the program. From floating castles in the sky to mazes made of mirrors, we witnessed how just a few key strokes can result in a massive and intricate structure that would normally take hours to build manually!

We had a lot of fun working with our STEM Explorers in Coding Camp this summer, and we’re looking forward to the possibilities for future camps!

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WMSI's February Vacation Week Camp: Mining Into A Crafty World

By: Mike Carmon

The universe of Minecraft can be a rabbit hole of sorts, but also one filled with endless worlds overflowing with endless possibilities. Over vacation week, WMSI used this diverse and exciting universe to bring STEM to vacationing students across New Hampshire’s north country with our two-day Minecraft Camp here in Bethlehem.

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After brief introductions and getting-to-know-you’s, students sat down at their respective stations and collectively entered the world of Minecraft to complete several intriguing challenges.

Our world is one of limited resources, an important lesson that our STEM students learned in our first camp activity: building a house in Minecraft using only a strict set of allotted materials. Students were required to pool those resources in an effort to build the house as a team, each designing intricate rooms that all served different purposes.

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The resulting house displayed a remarkable diversity as each student put their own respective mark on the room they designed, yet certainly conveyed the importance of working together to ensure resources are allocated where necessary, and that everyone’s individual designs work in tandem to form a cohesive unit.

We closed out Day One by forming two teams and using Makey Makey technology for each team to navigate a tricky Minecraft maze. With each member of the team in charge of navigating one specific direction within the maze, this made for some excellent team-building!

Day Two of camp opened with students facing off against the camp instructors, with students attempting to navigate a Minecraft obstacle course while our instructors placed lots of tricky barriers in their way. While the instructors certainly produced a tough challenge, the students proved equal to the task!

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The final leg of Minecraft camp was the ultimate team challenge, with students putting on their Search-And-Rescue hats and seeking out a virtual lost hiker in a simulated MInecraft version of the White Mountains. With concepts such as conserving limited resources, navigation, surviving a remote environment, and dependence on teammates, this big ultimate task also proved successful. It was truly a wonderful sight to watch all of the students work together to find the virtual lost hiker!

All in all, our Minecraft Camp was a huge success, and we’re looking forward to our diverse set of camps coming up this summer!

WMSI Mobile STEM Lab Fall Coding Projects!

By Jeremy Knowlton

The WMSI Mobile STEM Lab Unit has been having a fantastic Fall driving around Coos County exciting students about STEM! The past few months have had some particularly interesting updates in student driven coding projects! Students have giggled, brainstormed, and problem solved their way through some imaginative programming challenges, including multi-level maze games, artificial physics games, villain design, scoreboards, and even choose your own adventure story games!!

Milan students wiring up game controllers for their new creation!

Milan students wiring up game controllers for their new creation!

Most of our coding projects this Fall were programmed on Scratch, an easy to use block-based language that allows students to learn all of the tricks of a computer scientist without worrying about typos/syntax errors! Using Scratch, we challenged students to explore their excitement for games (who doesn't like games?) and focus on the story telling aspect of each design! We started them off with some basic game design tools like villain, scoreboard, movement, and jump coding (below)

The exciting world of artificial physics! We almost got the jump mechanics perfect...

With the basics under their belts,  STEM explorers began designing games with different levels. Good games always teach something, so that as you play more your success in the game will increase. Good level-based design will increase the difficulty of each level to match the user's increased skill, creating a game that is never too hard and never to easy. This concept is straightforward in theory, but is a massive task in creative problem solving to balance difficulty levels just right! Students tackled this level-based design challenge with mazes, creating 5-6 maze levels with villains, power-ups, character sensing, and challenging wall puzzles. Looks of concentration turned to grins as students tested and re-designed each other's mazes, creating hours of playing content!

Giggling maze antics from these two co-designers!

Giggling maze antics from these two co-designers!

An artistic maze with a cool dragon at the end - Sweet!

An artistic maze with a cool dragon at the end - Sweet!

Our biggest Scratch project of the Mobile program required strong story telling skills as well as some advanced coding! If/then statements, broadcasters, loops, and sensing mechanisms flew in verbal gusts around the room as students tackled the exciting challenge of choose your own adventure games! 

Three friends hard at work coding a story about a brave monkey explorer!

Three friends hard at work coding a story about a brave monkey explorer!

Choose your own adventure games have historically been in either book or computer game format. The basic idea is that your character goes through a story and you, as the player/reader, get to choose what you do from several options. The choices you make decide the fate of your character. In our Scratch choose your own adventure games, students were given the basic coding frame work and challenged to design a story, figure out text and movement patterns for their characters, and given the challenge of using broadcast coding to get the character to cue the scene when to change! Some students took the design challenge a step further, using Makey Makeys to design interactive cardboard board games that controlled their character's choices and movements!

The first scene of an adventure game! Should the monkey run away or explore the closed store?

The first scene of an adventure game! Should the monkey run away or explore the closed store?

Student code sample from a choose your own adventure game!

Student code sample from a choose your own adventure game!

After two sessions, deep looks of concentration and brainstorm faces turned to laughter and excited yelps as students tested each other's games! 

A 2nd year STEM Lab Explorer sharing his game with the group!

A 2nd year STEM Lab Explorer sharing his game with the group!

A group share at the very end of every project allows students to share accomplishments, tips and tricks, and novel ideas. At the end of our last session each student presented their games, narrating each scene and explaining the challenges they had to overcome. Coding, often considered a solitary activity, is quite fun with lots of friends and colleagues to test your code, program you out of a jam, and pass an excited high five along!

Want to see some example games that students created? Here's a gallery of them on our WMSI Scratch account

Looking forward to seeing what these STEM Explorers dream up next!

Art, Robots, and Much More in Updated WMSI Mobile STEM Lab!

With school back in session, WMSI's science van, now artistically decked out in fancy decals, is once again touring the North Country, bringing innovative challenges, creative problem solving, and loads of fun to students around the North Country!

You can see our Mobile STEM Lab van anywhere in Northern New Hampshire! 

You can see our Mobile STEM Lab van anywhere in Northern New Hampshire! 

 

WMSI Mobile Lab has been edited and shined up in many areas, particularly in regards to our curriculum. WMSI has added units in animation, videography, and robotics, to name a few! We're very excited about our brand new robotics session: Robotic Art Drawers! 

As we were brainstorming year two curriculum, we got really excited about de-mystifying the 3D printer and making it more understandable for students. a 3D printer is really just 3 motors which allows side to side and up/down movement as well as codes that give the machine coordinates to follow. We simplified this idea to two motors, more basic code, and a marker instead of a plastic melter. The main take away? Machine artistry is fun and we can build these artistic machines without having a Masters in Engineering!

After introducing these main points to students, our STEM Explorers raced into the project with enthusiasm and excitement! First, they practiced a skill every designer needs to know: following poorly written blue prints (hmm I wonder who wrote those...). They patiently built, following instructions and thinking critically whenever details were vague or unclear (ok ok, I wrote them!). 

STEM Explorers designing a sweet gear system for their robotic drawing arm!

STEM Explorers designing a sweet gear system for their robotic drawing arm!

After building, we talked about another key part of any designer's job: making your own creations through trial and error! Students fired up laptops and began to code their robots, putting together loops with motor commands that would run the robotic scissor arm of their builds. They next explored different speeds for their two motors and how those speeds would effect their designs. Soon, students had discovered motor speeds that would draw complex shapes such as hearts, skulls, spoons, and the coolest doodles the world has EVER SEEN! 

Some groups even explored using two markers!

Some groups even explored using two markers!

Some very excited Youth Leaders putting together the longest scissor arm EVER!

Some very excited Youth Leaders putting together the longest scissor arm EVER!

"I can't believe my robot just drew that!"

"I can't believe my robot just drew that!"

All in all, it was a great show of creativity in coding for our STEM Explorers across the North Country! We can't wait to see what these excited students dream up in the coming weeks!

WMSI Mobile Lab Visits The Mt. Washington Hotel!

By Jeremy Knowlton

WMSI has quickly accelerated into Fall programming with an intriguing zip-line challenge at the Mount Washington Hotel! The program was founded on the brainstorm that asked the question "what STEAM challenge could highlight the unique setting of Crawford Notch?" This question framed this outdoors challenge, which used a miniature version of Bretton Woods' Zip-line to excite kids and adults about aerial exploration in the North Country!

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The program had three main challenges: design a self propelled zip-line vehicle using a propeller, a balloon, or a robot! The day started with participants walking up to the side lawn of the Mount Washington on a gloriously sunny day with three zip-lines set up and a team of smiling blue-shirted WMSI instructors ready to start this high flying aerial endeavor!

For the robot challenge, participants started with a finite amount of pieces and the task of building a robot that could climb a huge slack-line at a steep angle...without falling! (no robots were harmed in the testing of this activity).

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Participants excitedly assembled prototypes, using a host of different mechanisms for gripping the line and stopping the robot from falling. We were particularly interested in how students increased the grip of their robots; they considered frictional factors such as slack-line gripping material as well as how weight distribution would effect holding power! Soon, shouts of excitement poured off of the expansive hotel lawn as robots climbed 5 feet, 10 feet, even 20 feet into the air! One student even attached a Gopro to his build, allowing us to see what it would be like as a passenger on this vehicle slowly making its way up to the second story of the hotel!

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Participants also designed zip-line vehicles powered by balloons and propellers! These challenges featured fast speeds, lots of iterative design, and tons of giggles! Participants designed many prototypes to solve the mystery of the high powered balloon zip-line vehicle. Working models had some combination of tape, straws, and popsicle sticks as the main body. Students spent a lot of time designing the mechanism that would hold the balloon onto the line, creating a system that would slide easily and distribute the force of the balloon release well. Students also designed propellor-powered zip-line vehicles, using plastic propellors, rubber bands to store energy, and popsicle sticks/straws for the body. We were very impressed with participant prototyping, as these young inventors happily and patiently designed 3-4 non-working models before they discovered the secret tweaks that would make their builds soar up the line! 

All in all, the day was a wonderful mix of sun, beautiful scenery, and innovative design at the Mount Washington Hotel! We look forward to future programs with North Country businesses!