Tasked with replicating a hovercraft out of cardboard, teams of young students worked in a Forest Hill Elementary classroom to make a craft light enough for air to lift and durable enough for a long voyage.
Hovercraft construction was only one of several thorny problems tackled by participants in Camp Invention, a weeklong program held at three Harford elementary schools over the past three weeks.
"It's hard to think of an idea that is going to work," said Alison Pullen, 9. "You have to imagine it in your head and think."
Her teammate, 8-year-old Meaghan Richardson, said, "That's why it's better to work in teams. You get more ideas."
Imagination and teamwork are basics that Camp Invention counselors -- most of them are teachers -- encourage as budding young scientists spend five days testing their creativity.
The children have built cars, planes and boats, attempted to contact space aliens, fashioned their own machines out of recycled appliances and solved a crime.
"Sports camps keep the body active. This camp keeps the brain active with science in a fun environment," said Jillian Bartholomew, director of the camp at Ring Factory Elementary in Bel Air. "Hopefully, it will encourage a lifelong love of science."
The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, began the camps for elementary students several years ago and now organizes them across the country. In five daylong sessions, children thrive on solving problems. Several "graduate campers" volunteer to assist.
"This camp is a lot of fun, and I'll come back as long as I can do something," said Ian Allan, 12, a volunteer. "It really shows you that you can invent anything."
When Ian was a camper last year, he attempted to make a DVD player with an auto-correct element. He could not quite make it work, he said, but he learned from the effort.
Jake Sigwart, 10, said he had already taken apart a phone and a hair dryer, hoping to use the parts to make a food flinger -- for the foods he does not like.
"The focus is on teamwork, problem-solving and what works through trial and error," said Bartholomew, a Baltimore County elementary school teacher. "Some of the best inventions are mistakes made on the way to something else."
Harford's three camp sessions have rotated to Youth's Benefit, Ring Factory and Forest Hill elementaries after stints in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties this summer.
"We make it interesting, keep it fast-paced and allow the children to cycle through different activities," said Bartholomew. "There are many that they can do again at home with their parents."
In one session, a three-person team pondered building a three-wheeled car.
"Three wheels are better than two," said Chris Caper, 10. "We have already built gliders and boats. We can do this."
And if the team succeeds, the camp offers lessons in writing patent applications.
While one group built vehicles, the youngest campers looked to outer space, hoping their homemade antennas and telescopes might lead to contact with an alien voyager or another planet. They offered their teacher all sorts of explanations for why a reported signal from outer space was weakening.
"Maybe they are behind a bigger planet that is blocking their signal," said Jack Ethier, 7. "Or, maybe, they just want to go back to their own galaxy."
Or, maybe, the campers should send stronger signals. Undeterred, the children continued to make paper domes and cones to mount on poles that would probe the sky.
After about a half-hour of cutting and taping, the hovercraft designers were ready to test their inventions with wind provided by a hand-held hair dryer.
The first test drivers cheered as their craft went twice the required 4-foot distance. Their frugal use of tape kept the craft's weight down and made liftoff easier, they said.
On its initial trial, the hovercraft made by Alison and Meaghan would not fly. But the girls persevered, modified their design and succeeded in getting it to travel the requisite 4 feet. Then, they moved on to the next task -- amateur detective work.
They would cordon off the crime scene and gather evidence that would help them find a stolen book of ideas worth millions.
"We have a big mystery to solve," said Jake.