DANVILLE — Two days after crash-landing their spaceship on Planet ZAK, 23 elementary school students and one junior high school student from Vermilion County, motivated by growling stomachs, set off to find food.
After a short trek, they spied something that looked edible. The only problem: It was on an island surrounded by quicksand and a murky swamp with who knows what kind of creatures lurking below the surface.
These Earthlings' mission on Wednesday morning: Find a way to get to the food, or bring it to them.
"Let's make a boat," said 7-year-old Kokayi Hopper-Abdullah, of Danville. Unfortunately, his group discovered the large piece of cardboard it used to fashion the vessel got wet and sank.
Another team was more successful. Its members found large pieces of Styrofoam and built a floating bridge.
"We dropped a piece into the swamp and walked out on it, then dropped another and another until we were close enough to reach it," 8-year-old Katie Smith of Danville said, referring to a bag of popcorn.
The exercise is one of a number of hands-on activities featured in Camp Invention, being held at Danville Area Community College this week. The summer enrichment camp aims to inspire creativity and inventive-thinking by posing real-world challenges.
"The reality is children are very creative. But somewhere between elementary school and high school, we kill that creativity," said Kathy Sturgeon, dean of DACC's math and science division. "What we're hoping to do is explode it to such a level that they will maintain it ... and hopefully pick careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs."
Sturgeon has wanted to put on an engineering camp ever since she became a DACC instructor and later head of the engineering division. But she didn't have time to develop a curriculum.
That's where Invent Now comes in. The nonprofit organization partners with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and nationwide schools to create innovative lessons that align with national and state education standards and foster creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and other 21st-century skills that will help students succeed in a competitive global world. In 2012, more than 77,000 elementary students in 1,100 school districts nationwide participated in the camp.
This year, DACC camp's curriculum is Create, one of four offered by Invent Now. During the camp, two teams rotate through four modules — Problem Solving on Planet ZAK; Saving Sludge City; I Can Invent: Launchitude; and Geo-Games — throughout the day.
On Planet ZAK, students learn about weather and concepts of flight and use their critical-thinking skills and creativity to keep themselves safe in their new environment, which they can survive in for only five days, according to instructor Susan Foreman. On Monday, they built a shelter using materials they salvaged — pieces of construction supplies, cereal boxes, Bubble Wrap, cardboard, etc. — and then improved it after learning more about the planet's stormy weather. On Tuesday, they made clothing. The rest of the week, they will build a spaceship, which they will launch with a balloon, to take them back home.
In I Can Invent: Launchitude, students explore physics, geography, inventions and entrepreneurship, Foreman said. Earlier in the week, they donned goggles and other safety gear, learned how to use various screwdrivers and pliers and then took apart old appliances that they brought from home. Now they're using parts to build a "duck chucker" to launch international rubber ducks, who floated off course, back to their home countries.
"I've been so impressed with their level of thinking and curiosity," said Foreman, a former NASA engineer.
She said students don't just take what she says at face value, such as she crash-landed on the planet eons ago and now her body chemistry has changed so that she can't return home. Instead, they use their knowledge and critical-thinking skills to challenge her and come up with ways to bring her home.
Instructor Wendy Brown said students learn about environment science and conservation in Saving Sludge City, a community that's been devastated by overpopulation and pollution. On Monday, they had to design a landfill that would keep toxic chemicals from leaching into the water table, and on Tuesday, they had to design a filtration system to remove pollutants in the water from Lake Lucky.
"At first when I told them what they had to do, they said, 'There's no way I can do that,'" Brown recalled. "But they did it and very successfully. Some of them really thought outside of the box and came up with a double filtration system.
"That's what this camp is all about," she continued. "Getting students at an early age to appreciate science, which they don't always get from reading a book. They get that from hands-on activities that are fun and creative. It brings science alive and gives them a different perspective."