'If you think you can do it, you can'
DANVILLE — Four days into designing an insect-themed pinball machine and building it with cardboard, a cereal box and parts of an old DVD player, 9-year-old Angolina Anderson and 8-year-old Carter Block were ready to attach a main feature.
On Wednesday, their five-member team had fashioned a plunger out of a paper towel tube, a tin-foil ball, two pencils and a couple of sturdy rubber bands. On Thursday, they pushed the tube through a hole on the front side and sealed it in place with duct tape.
Carter pulled the plunger back as far as the rubber bands would stretch, then let go. The plunger shot smoothly through the tube, propelling a plastic ping pong ball into the playfield.
"It works!" Angolina shouted triumphantly, then tested it herself.
What's it like building a working pinball machine out of recyclable materials?
"It's hard, but it's fun," answered teammate Adrian Riveria, 9. "If you think you can do it, you can."
The project is one of several that some Danville students are doing at Camp Invention, held at East Park School this week. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office program gives kids a chance to explore science, technology, engineering and math concepts through hands-on projects aimed at "fostering innovative-thinking, real-world problem solving and the spirit of invention."
The district was able to put on the camp for 110 soon-to-be first through sixth graders, thanks to a donation from the U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center. The center also provided funding to pay for 12 Danville High students to serve as leadership interns.
"They're having so much fun interacting with the materials that they don't realize they're actually learning," said Markesha Hillsman, one of the camp's teachers.
Throughout the day, students rotate through four units, including "Design Studio: Morphed," where they create and market original inventions, and "Amplified," where they learn about the five senses and invent bionic gadgets to heighten them.
Campers said one of their favorite units has been "I can Invent: Pinbug," because they've gotten to open up old clocks, computer towers and VCR players that they've brought from home, take them apart and use the pieces to build ramps, rails, flippers and other parts of their pinball machines.
"They've been learning about simple machines like levers and pulleys," said teacher Robyn Yount. "And because our pinball machines have an insect theme, we've also looked at insects and the compound leg structures. Some of their flippers were designed to look like grasshopper legs. The younger groups have a simpler flipper structure. But the older ones are using nuts and bolts and washers to build compound joint flippers, and they had to learn how to read blueprints to do that."
Yount said kids have learned how to use a screwdriver, pliers and other tools. They've also learned how to brainstorm, think outside the box and work as a team.
"Some of them come up with the ideas," she said. "Some don't have as many ideas, but they know how to operate the tools and cut apart the machines. Then there are those who are great at drawing and coloring and come up with all of the images. Everybody is doing something."
A couple doors down in the "Super Go" unit, kids learned about animals and their unique abilities and habitats from Hillsman. Then they built battery-operated cars, using either a propeller or pulley system, inspired by the animals' "super powers."
Amal Shillo, 10, said her car features characteristics of both the cheetah and eagle.
"The cheetah because of its speed and power. The eagle because ... the feathers make it look pretty," Amal explained as she taped pink and purple feathers to her car.
Today, students will have a road rally to see whose car goes the fastest and furthest.
"I think the pulley is more faster," Amal said.
"If we had a nice wind, I think the propeller will work," added Garrett Degner, 9.
Hillsman said she hopes the camp gets students interested in STEM classes and careers at a young age.
"That's what we're trying to do: inspire the next generation of scientists," she said. "You want to inspire them now so in the future, they could create the next big thing."