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Camp Invention: Susan Clarke, Regional Coordinator

June 4, 2010

From time to time, we interview camp directors to get their tips for parents in planning their kids summers. I had the pleasure of talking with Susan Clarke, a Regional Coordinator for Camp Invention. Susan was able to provide a particularly useful perspective, as she has been working with Camp Invention for 20 years, first as a camp director, and she sent her now college age kids to camp for many years. Camp Invention is a non-profit camp that operates in 49 states. It was started by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in partnership with the U.S. Patent Office.

With so many camps available, how do find the right camp for your child?

Being a veteran (my kids are in college), I think the summer is a great time to give kids the opportunity to stretch a little bit.  Supplement their school experiences with something new. I think it’s great to have kids try lots of different things, so that when they get older, they know where to focus. Also, try to give your children a variety of experiences over the summer. Balance outdoor activities with creative opportunities, sports with academics. Lastly, think about your child interests. Keep them involved in the process and make sure they are interested in the selections.

What questions should a parent ask a camp?

  • How do you group the kids? How broad is the age range?
  • What is the staff to student ratio?
  • Are the activities hands on?
  • How much reading is involved? Camps that require reading for projects may not be appropriate for younger kids?
  • How large are the project groups? Not all kids do well in team projects. If your child doesn’t, you will want to be deliberate in whether you choose to avoid team projects and keep it easy or embrace team projects to give your child more experience. Also, if you have a shy or reserved child, they may find it easiest to make friends when working in small groups, rather than alone or in large groups.
  • Who is teaching the program? Students (usually high school or college) or certified teachers? Camps run by students may have a harder time maintaining discpline, and teachers are more qualified to teach science or other academic subjects.

Many children are in camp most or all the summer. Any tips to prevent camp burn-out?

  • Make sure your child is involved in the selection process for camp. It makes all the difference if you child wants to attend the camp.
  • Mix up the activities throughout the summer, so that they have variety during the summer.
  • Try to register your child with one friend, not two friends. A group of three friends can be hard to manage.

How should parents prepare kids for camp?

  • Talk to your children ahead of time about what they are going to do. It’s very helpful to the child if they can anticipate the day. Let them know if they stay with the same teacher all day or will rotate.
  • At Camp Invention, we call the kids the week before and let them know their counselor’s name and the t-shirt color they will wear. It really helps reduce anxiety for the kids, especially the shy or younger kids.

Please tell us what is special about Camp Invention.

We were founded by the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in partnership with the U.S. Patent Office.  Our signature unit “I can invent” is really unique and sets us apart.The kids bring in a broken appliance. They are given tools and they get to take it apart to learn how it works. Kids learn about the process of inventing. They take the pieces of their appliance and bring in other manufactured items to create their own inventions. Some of our kids inventions include  a waterpark for mosquitoes (to keep the mosquitoes occupied rather than biting the child) and a self-cooling bike helmet with fans.

We have five classes each day, all led by a certified teacher. We keep very low teacher-student ratios, typically 1:6 or 1:8, so that there is plenty of assistance for our hands on projects. Our projects are STEM oriented- science, technology, engineering and math. We have a class on power that looks at different sources of energy and in which the kids build a motorized set. Another class builds items for avatars, and in the process, kids learn about marketplace economics. In another math and science heavy unit, kids pretend that they crash land on an alien planet. The units are fun and engaging.

All Camp Invention classes use inquiry-based learning. The teachers provide a brief explanation of the concepts, and then the kids complete projects that further the learning. At the end of the class, teachers ask guided questions that help reinforce the learning.  By combining the learning and doing, the learning sticks longer.

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