If You Make, They Will Come

Flywheel generator.
Flywheel generator instructions, photo by Cristen Pantano

For the second year in a row, Make Magazine held its virtual Maker Camp this summer. The camp is geared toward 13 to 18-year-olds and encourages kids to participate in thirty DIY building projects. Campers were virtually guided in building robots, musical instruments, circuits, movie props, and, of course, a few awesome Lego projects.

While Maker Camp was intended to be an online virtual camp, the DIY phenomenon has caught on and maker camps have been popping up everywhere. Libraries have been offering rooms as “maker space” and day camps are now offering “maker week” themes. A good friend of mine even hosted a dozen teenagers in her living room to work on a bike-powered cell phone charger.

Inspired by Maker Camp and my friend, I decided to hold a mini-maker camp for the younger builders in our community.

Our kids are young, so I wasn’t sure if the actual Maker Camp projects would be a good fit for them. While trying to figure out an appropriate project for the day, our son received the Science Wiz: Energy kit for his birthday. The kit includes a 48 page booklet discussing the scientific definition of energy, along with 22 activities. The activities include transferring chemical energy from a battery to a motor and building a solar powered car. I thought that the kit would be a great way to introduce the kids to building.

We invited twelve kids ranging in age from seven to twelve, as well an experienced 13-year-old builder who would assist with the projects. When the kids arrived we discussed what energy meant to them, the scientific definition of energy, as well as different energy sources. Since many of the kit activities focused on electricity, we spent a good amount of time discussing what electricity is, how it is generated, and how it works. Once we got the basics down, it was time to build!

The kids were very enthusiastic and worked great in groups of four led by one of the 12-year-old makers. We started with some hands-on activities to get the kids thinking about the scientific definition of energy, then we got the kits out.

Building a solar racer.

First up was changing chemical energy from a battery into electrical, and finally, kinetic energy. This involved simply attaching wires to a battery and then the other end of the wires to a motor. The kit instructions were great and all the groups figured it out rather quickly.

Next, we generated electricity using a fly wheel and used the generated electricity to run an additional motor. This activity was a huge hit and the kids spent a good fifteen minutes taking turns with the bike.

After a snack and some play, we tackled the super capacitor car. I had originally planned for the kids to build a solar racer, but mother nature had different plans. The super capacitor car was a bit trickier, but with the help of my Maker Mom friend, and my experienced 13-year-old builder, each group got their cars up and running. The kids ran out in the rain to try their cars, and their excitement and pride was infectious.

At this point, we were almost three hours in, and we called it a day. Once I left the kids alone, the real magic happened.

The sun came out so myself and about half the kids went out to play. The other half stayed inside and continued building. Most decided to take the super capacitor off of the car and add the solar panel. One camper then added back the super capacitor, but this time added a battery to the car. The ideas just exploded: kids were adding wheels, additional motors, reflectors, more batteries, and sound boxes. This continued building and creativity was a sign that the day was a success. For some kids the building continued at home. One 9-year-old girl added an on/off switch to her super capacitor car.

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Two mini-Makers hard at work.

I really enjoyed the day and my kids did as well. I learned a lot during the process of preparing for the day, and I think the kids learned new things as well. We will definitely be hosting more mini-maker camps. Seeing how capable all the kids are, I think I will eventually try to modify an actual Maker Camp project.

In the meantime, I discovered Maker Kids and couldn’t be more excited to try their projects with our friends! I will also likely use another Science Wiz kit. I like the kits for the organized layout of the building projects, but do feel that they lack in sufficient background content.

I refreshed my cobwebbed brain with old textbooks, and used illustrations from The Magic School Bus: The Electric Field Trip for the kids.

What about you? Did your family participate in Maker Camp this summer? What projects did you do? Any suggestions for our next mini-maker camp?