The art of 'imagineering': Teaching kids to problem solve through math, science and teamwork

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NORTH ADAMS — Using only supplies like aluminum foil, index cards, newspaper and masking tape, pairs of Summer Science Camp students based at Brayton Elementary School had to design three separate devices to hold an inflated beach ball.

One team of students took a sheet of foil and sculpted it into a large cup with a small hand-held step that cradled the beach ball as they carried it across the room. Other teams attempted similar designs — some functional, some flopping — while some pairs didn't make it past the step of just inflating their ball. But all the teams, during the effort, had to tweak their design.

Said teacher Sue Oliveri to encourage the group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders to persist: "You can always work on it and come back to try it. In no world is it perfect. Nearly nothing [of a new design] works the first time."

"Imagineering" has been the theme of this year's Summer Science Camp, which includes 150 students, from prekindergarten through grade six of North Adams Public Schools. The program is funded through a three-year state 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant to support out-of-school time learning. Participants only have a couple of weeks in between the end of the school year and the start of the summer program, "So there isn't a learning loss," said 21st Century program coordinator Noella Carlow.

Based on teacher, student and family feedback, the former summer school-like program has undergone its own "imagineering" treatment to become a vibrant summer camp filled with activities, games, field trips, snacks, crafts and more. This year, fifth and sixth graders got to take part in a design competition-style program during which they met with local business people, drafted their own ideas and presented them to members of the 1Berkshire chamber of commerce group.

The "imagineering" term, Carlow explained, is borrowed from a term coined through Disney, to describe the company's unique ways of working with creators to help them think outside the proverbial box to generate wonderful and sometimes magical outcomes.

That magical feel happens when you walk off the camp bus and into the Brayton School lobby during science camp season. This year, students are greeted by a display of giant giraffes and a Lego robot created by veteran educator Lynn Hayden, who co-teaches some of the older elementary students with Oliveri.

In the classrooms, the outcomes of student efforts aren't graded, but they're noticeable. Through activities themed around mechanics, force and mathematics, the teachers see different students emerge as leaders helping their classmates, or introverted thinkers who are enabled to express their thoughts through design.

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In Elizabeth "Ebbie" Patenaude's group of mostly second graders, kids were using plastic cups as molds to make sand and water "sandcastles." The goal was to work out the right water-to-sand ratio to make a structure study enough to withstand the weight of a first-grade reader book.

Some kids were really into the design, like Declan Janis, who split his sandcastle in half to create a wider surface area for his book. John Lescarbeau got a bit more frustrated after Patenaude insisted "no cracks in the sides," because in real life, that means the buildings would fall down.

"This is boring," Lescarbeau said, casting aside his task for a moment, but eventually giving it another go.

"I like being messy," said Mason Mullen with a giant grin as he stabilized his sand sludge on a mixing tray.

"I like this because we have the nicest teacher and it's fun. It feels like I'm at home," said Maya Berthelly-Jimenez.

"They try to do the idea of learning and having fun," said fourth grader Manav Saluja, who has emerged as both a leader, as well as quite the designer.

One week, the students had to design boats out of foil. When it came to testing his, Saluja said, "I didn't think it would float, and it took a whole cup of pennies to sink mine. I think we should do more of this kind of science."

Oliveri says that the kids sometimes have a hard time with the challenge of working with new partners on design tasks, where there's not one right answer. The kids regularly look to their teachers for approval, but in science camp, the students are simply asked "What do you think?" and are sent back to the drawing board.

"Everyone in the group wanted to be right, but I wanted them to understand that each kid has a different skill set to bring to the table. That's why I love summer camp here. There's so much discussion going on," Oliveri said.


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