Camp Guide: Brainstorming at the Bakken

Credit: Photo by Lyon Keasler
Credit: Photo by Lyon Keasler

The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” very well could have been said about the Summer Science Day Camps at The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, where kids are challenged to dream up inventions of their own and bring them to life. 

At a recent camp session, 8-year-old camper Shifa was hard at work on a light-up jewelry box that hid a battery-operated circuit of LED lights under its pink and glittery exterior. When asked what inspired her to create such a flashy piece, Shifa said inspiration came easy. “My earrings had no place to go.”

The Bakken camps, which have been held at the museum named for Medtronic co-founder and implantable pacemaker inventor Earl Bakken for over a decade, operate on a simple premise: think it, make it, improve it, and show it. Early on in the weeklong session, campers sketch out their proposed designs, drawing on their imaginations and personal experiences for inspiration. This “think it” part of the process can be daunting for many campers, said Invention Program Coordinator Andre Phillips.

“The tricky thing with the word invention is that it’s not always something new,” Phillips says. “We have to stress that invention can just be your version of something that already exists, or a better version of something that exists.”

Try, try again

After their ideas are on paper and they’ve been trained to safely use the tools available to them in the workshop, the campers get to work. For a few hours each day, they work alongside volunteers and counselors to bring their creations to life. This particular day, the campers were focused on the “improve it” part of the invention process, encouraged by the counselors to think of how they could make their project better with more features or a revised design. 

Like any good inventor, the campers
at The Bakken understand that there
are several trips back to the drawing board between the original idea and
the final product.

“Obviously it doesn’t always look like how you want it to look like. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not as good,” says third-time camper Miriam. “But it’s always really cool.”

Each day at the Summer Science Day Camps begins with a scientific “challenge” that revolves around that day’s theme. On “improve it” day, the campers gathered on the roof of the Bakken for their challenge, lined up behind rows of air compressors equipped with empty plastic bottles. After a round of test launches, the campers broke into teams and set to work on a common goal: turn the bottle into a rocket that would fly further than the rest.

Some campers added paper fins and nose cones to their rockets, looking to make their bottle as aerodynamic as possible. Others chose a more aesthetic route, wrapping their rocket in colored electrical tape (one rocket was decorated like a bee, but unfortunately didn’t fly like one). If their design didn’t perform as well as they had hoped, they went back to the drawing board before the next round, bouncing ideas off of each other and the counselors to settle on a new and improved design.

This trial-and-error way of creating is at the core of the Bakken’s camp philosophy; that campers shouldn’t think of any missteps in their project as a failure, but rather as a chance for improvement.

“Being the Bakken museum we often fall back on the story of Earl and the pacemaker,” Phillips said. “He didn’t invent the pacemaker, but he made a better pacemaker. He improved the design.”

After the morning challenge, the campers headed back downstairs to continue work on their projects. Second year counselor Sandra Walton was on hand in the workshop to offer words of encouragement, and supervise campers as they used tools like saws and soldering irons. But aside from that, she said, the students’ work was all their own.

“A lot of them do fail, and we want to teach them not to get upset,” Walton said. “But you want to do it so that you’re not taking over their project or doing most of it for them.”

With only one day left before the “show it” phase of their projects, the campers left the workshop one by one to test their inventions in the adjacent classroom. One girl piloted a motorized paddleboat in a tub of water, while another put the finishing touches on a model RV with working headlights. Nine-year-old Miriam, now a pro in her third year of The Bakken camps, led a mirror-plated robot around the room on a small leash that connected to its on/off switch.

Miriam explained that the skills she learned in her previous years at The Bakken had led up to this year’s invention, which she lovingly nicknamed R.O.B. (short for Remote Operated Bot). 

“I learned soldering when I first came here, and it’s always been my favorite.”  Miriam said, showing how R.O.B’s wire leash was soldered together. “I’ve learned a lot of cool things here.

Girl power

Standing in the chaos of the workshop, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of two dozen campers hard at work. But after spending enough time in the workshop, one detail became obvious: This particular week, there were no boys. 

All of the Bakken’s weeklong camp sessions are co-ed, with the exception of one. For five days each summer the Bakken camp goes girls-only, a tradition that began eight years ago.

“In this age group, it’s really easy for boys to just take over and dominate the small groups,” Phillips said. “But we like to make the all-girls camp so they can feel like they’re not competing with really boisterous and loud boys.”

Positive parent feedback has kept girls week going strong, so much so that some parents ask to sign their daughters up for it even though they’re not within the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade age range. Phillips explained that even he takes a step back during girls only week, to allow the female counselors to have more one-on-one interaction with the campers.

“We like to try to take down the image of science and engineering as a boy’s ‘thing,’” Phillips said. “We like to have an all girls’ camp to show that yeah, there is a place for women in this industry.”

The boy-free atmosphere is something that many of the campers appreciate, including Miriam, whose first two camp experiences were during co-ed weeks.

“Girls can be gossip queens,” she admitted. “But once in awhile I do enjoy this, a lot.”

Between the morning challenges, games, and afternoon magic tricks, campers may have a hard time differentiating between what’s a game and what’s science at the Bakken day camps. Even the time devoted to science projects seemed like fun, with girls encouraging one another and cheering when their inventions worked. 

This concept of learning through play is exactly what the Bakken camps are striving for. Though it may just seem like fun and games to the campers, every activity is structured to encourage creative thinking and problem solving, which then translates to their inventions and time in the workshop.

“They have all these good ideas, and they get excited,” Walton said. “They just play around with it, and then they learn by having fun.”