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Kid inventors: Camp Invention returns for second year

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Many children dream of becoming inventors, but few see that aspiration come to fruition. But for more than 120 local students, the dream can be a reality thanks to Camp Invention.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame started the nationwide program more than 25 years ago. But in Rowan County, it’s been running just two years.

“Two years ago, this entire region was kind of a hole for them,” said Neil Pifer, planetarium director at Horizons Unlimited.

Last year’s camp, hosted by Horizons, was the first in the area. Now, Camp Invention has expanded to Davie County, Mooresville and Kannapolis. And attendance at the Horizons camp has doubled.

Last year, Pifer said, roughly 55 campers participated in the weeklong camp. This year, Horizons is hosting two separate weeks of Camp Invention, with an average of 64 campers each.

“We’re not just expanded kid-wise,” Pifer said. “We’ve expanded to bigger parts of the building. …We’re using all 21,000 square feet.”

The students come from about 25 different elementary schools or experiences — including private, home and charter schools. But looking at the way they interact with each other on the second day of camp, you’d never guess.

“They’re all mixing together,” Pifer said.

There’s also been a wave of second-go students — kids who participated in the camp last year and were still eligible this year. Pifer said that roughly 78 percent of eligible campers from 2016 returned this summer.

“In our industry, that’s a really good retention rate,” he said.

Inside Horizons’ nooks and crannies, groups of students from kindergartners through rising sixth-graders spent the week tinkering, toiling and creating. They pulled apart DVD players and computers, designed slingshots and products, and learned about the composition of other planets. The rooms are covered with supplies, and the students work diligently, heads bent over their designs to create magic with scissors and screwdrivers.

“They’re all just in it,” Pifer said.

One of Camp Invention’s hallmarks is the “take apart” room. Every student brings an older piece of technology from home, guts it, and uses the wires, circuits and metal to create something new. For many students, it’s the best part of the day.

“They don’t ever get to rip anything apart. They always have to build, build build,” Pifer said. “So they love it.”

In Horizons’ maker-space room, rising fourth-grader Emery Corl used multiple tools to remove circuit boards from a defunct dial phone.

“It’s a past-generation phone. …It took forever to take apart this part,” she said, pointing at the plastic casing with her screwdriver.

Under the guidance of volunteer instructors, Emery and other students will use the innards of each device to make a “spy box” — a secure place to store precious items that will sound an alarm when opened.

When asked if she thought she’d get much use out of the finished product, Emery looked up from her work.

“Probably,” she said. “I have two little sisters.”

Just down the table, rising third-grader McKenlynn Weber worked to dismantle a DVD player and a DVD/VHS combo player.

“I like taking things apart,” she said.

McKenlynn said her second-grade teacher at Mount Ulla Elementary School recommended she attend Camp Invention.

“I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” she said.

In a room downstairs, kindergartners and first-graders were hard at work designing slingshots. Rising first-graders Emmaline Meyers and Jeffrey Stephenson teamed up to design the perfect weapon.

At first, they’d come up with a design without the typical Y fork distinctive to slingshots, but eventually they discarded it.

“It would be hard to make that kind,” Jeffrey said.

So they settled on the more traditional design, constructing it out of cardboard, duct tape and rubber bands.

“I thought we wouldn’t have enough cardboard,” Jeffrey said.

“But we have a ton,” Emmaline added.

This year’s Camp Invention is unique because the Robertson Family Foundation stepped up to help, providing Horizons with a $10,000 grant. That money went to help cover the tuition of 43 local students.

“That money when a long way to allowing kids who would have had no shot at a quality camp at retail price like this,” Pifer said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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