Young inventors find a summer home

The Baltimore Sun

Alois Langer remembers building a pretend rocket ship out of a cardboard box with his dad. And how his scientist father used to bring home old gadgets from work and let his son take them apart to figure out how they functioned.

Those experiences helped whet the 63-year-old Langer's appetite for pursuing a career in science and for inventing contraptions. While the mechanical eraser he created when he was a kid was a flop, he later gained fame by producing the first implantable cardiac defibrillator.

Langer, a resident of Pasadena, wants to encourage youngsters to enter the field, so he accepted an invitation to speak last week to Anne Arundel County students at Camp Invention, a weeklong summer camp designed to foster creativity, teamwork and science literacy for children entering grades one through six.

"Things didn't go smoothly all the time, but you just have to keep at it," Langer, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002, told students at Windsor Farm Elementary School in Annapolis. "You will hear that your idea is crazy, but you don't always want to listen to what they say."

Camp Invention is a national program created in 1990 by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The program has grown to more than 900 sites in 47 states.

Camp Invention has 1,653 children in 27 programs running this summer in Maryland. This is the fifth year for the program in Anne Arundel County. In addition to Windsor Farm, Camp Invention also was held at Shipley's Choice Elementary School in Millersville last week. It will be at Jacobsville Elementary School in Pasadena from July 28-Aug.1.

Local teachers are hired to run the program. Shavaun Hawkins, a Windsor Farm science teacher, is camp director for Windsor Farm and Jacobsville.

This year, she had 52 children at the Windsor Farm camp - the largest number the school has hosted. She hopes the camps have sparked an interest in science that eventually will pay off in high scores on the Maryland School Assessment tests. This will be the first year that the science portion of the test will count for fifth-graders, she said.

Hawkins said that her son, Trevor, has come to the camp for the past five years. She said he is always trying to create something at home.

"It's furthered his interest in building," Hawkins said.

It costs $205 to attend the camp, although students who register early can get discounts. The Camp Invention program has three curriculums: Create, Imagine and Encounter. Each curriculum runs a Recess Remix class, which allows students to modify traditional playground games with new rules and challenges. Kids also participate in "I Can Invent." For that, students bring in old appliances and reassemble them into new creations. Students are taught how to apply for patents and receive a pretend one at the end of the week.

Children take three other classes, which vary depending on which version of Camp Invention they are doing. At Windsor Farm, students participated in Imagine, which featured "Art Park," on designing a sculpture garden to placate an eccentric donor who has threatened to cut off money to a local art museum; "Saving Sludge City," on cleaning a polluted town's water supply; and "Moving at Rocket Speed" (MARS), on planning a trip to Mars.

In MARS, students dug through a trove of recyclables they brought from home to assemble spaceships. They also had to design living quarters on Mars, rovers for traveling on the planet and communication devices.

Maddie Curtis wasted no time Tuesday wrapping cellophane around a plastic water jug-turned-spacecraft. Her team had only a few days to prepare an imaginary crew of six.

Maddie taped on two empty paper towel rolls, which became the ship's booster rockets. Judy Barron taped metal bottle caps onto paper to form a solar panel to power the landing craft. Teresa Schofield worked on the landing pad - cotton balls on a plastic mat.

The girls, who will enter sixth grade in the fall, were learning the particulars of the Mars mission: the length of the trip, the atmospheric conditions and the significance of NASA's landing craft finding ice on the surface this month.

"I hope they find ice, because our water is so polluted," said Judy, who graduated from Windsor Farm in June.

Langer walked around the tables and asked the children to show him their ships. He took questions after the class about his inventions, which include a heart monitoring device that automatically places an emergency call if someone experiences heart problems.

"Do you ever get in trouble for taking apart anything?" asked Maddie, who said her mother got mad at her for taking apart a music box.

Langer said his parents weren't too pleased when he broke their alarm clock after dismantling it. He encouraged students to play around with broken appliances to see if they can learn how they work.

"You can learn a lot from junk," he said.

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