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Problem solvers take the spotlight at Camp Invention

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Camp Invention

Texas A&M professor Frances Ligler shows Camp Invention students the medal she was awarded when inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2017 for her work in developing portable optical biosensors.

Students from throughout the Brazos Valley and Central Texas have explored their creativity at Camp Invention this month.

“You never know which one of these kids sitting in front of you is going to cure cancer,” said Robert Wilson, director of the local camp. “One of them will one day.”

The camp, held July 11-15 at A&M United Methodist Church, is put on through the National Inventors Hall of Fame and targeted to students who are going into kindergarten through sixth grade. A second session is taking place this week at Greens Prairie Elementary School in College Station.

Christi Johnson, a returning Camp Invention teacher, said it is STEAM-based, focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

“A lot of what we are doing is engaging hands-on activities,” she said. “This is less structured than school. This is meant to be a camp, but it definitely enhances or extends what they’ve learned previously.”

Johnson, who is also a teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School in College Station during the school year, said the camp helps make up for the losses in learning and social interaction created by the COVID-19 pandemic and at-home learning.

Jessi Richter, a Bryan High School teacher and first-year Camp Invention educator, said she is able to see students engage their problem-solving skills as they work through the activities.

“They ask questions that lead to other answers that lead to other problems, and it’s just this great process for them,” Richter said. “It just opens up a whole other thing for them. It’s fantastic putting on the hands-on activities and engaging, and letting them actually build it so they can make a connection with real life.”

As part of the educational arm of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the camp introduces students to some of the 600 people who have been inducted into the hall. One of those “superheroes,” as they are called at the camp, is Frances Ligler, who was inducted in 2017 for her work in developing portable optical biosensors.

Ligler and her husband, George, are professors in the Texas A&M College of Engineering. She has visited Camp Invention since she was inducted, but this was her first one in Texas.

George Ligler said he wishes something like the camp had been available when he was in elementary school. Frances Ligler called it “wonderful” to work with students who do not know limitations to their creativity.

“There are plenty of studies that say girls are discouraged from pursuing math by the time they’re in junior high school or high school,” she said. “If we’re teaching them now you can do anything; you are creative; you can work with other people to do things that have never been done before — then they’re going to be less susceptible to being funneled into established and conventional roles.”

Wilson said the camp is all about creating a pipeline of students who use creativity to solve problems.

“Science and creativity doesn’t start in high school,” he said.

Frances Ligler said she enjoys inspiring the students to work on their ideas and follow their aspirations. Inventions can take place anywhere, she said, whether at home, in the kitchen or in a workshop. At every camp she visits, someone will ask what her first invention was and how old she was when it happened. Her answers are “dessert” and “about your age.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shaking,” she said, noting her sweet first invention was putting peanut butter and chocolate sauce over ice cream, before she knew about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Mallory Richter, 9, a fifth grader at International Leadership of Texas, said having someone like Ligler come and speak to the students encourages them to pursue their dreams and to not give up.

Sixth grader Bodi Herman, 11, who also attends International Leadership of Texas, said he believes the camp activities will help him find solutions to problems he may face in school or a future career.

Wilson’s daughter Maddie, a senior at A&M Consolidated High School, was a camper and is now a leadership intern. She said she loves everything about science, and her favorite thing is seeing the campers’ eyes as they learn something new or complete an activity for the first time.

Kazey Yezak, a third grader from Florida, in town visiting her cousin and fellow camper Alana Johnson, said she was not sure about coming to camp at first, but then saw how much fun it was. After a tiring first day, she said, she was excited to be back for the rest of the week.

The activities incorporate different areas of science, even showing the students possible career fields they had not considered, Richter said.

Holly Ernestes, 8, a third grader at Greens Prairie Elementary School in College Station, said she wants to have a career in science, and was excited to learn about machines and how things work because it will help in her future career.

In addition to the academic knowledge, Nellie Yezak — Kazey Yezak and Alana Johnson’s grandmother, and a parent volunteer at the camp — said they are also learning other important skills such as teamwork, courage to try new things and how to face challenges.

Maddie Wilson said she is proud of the opportunities Camp Invention gives to students, such as meeting an inventor who has more than two dozen patents to her name, and helping to foster a love for science in fun ways.

She said she loves that the camp highlights “superhero” inventors in the curriculum who might not be household names, but whose inventions are used every day.

“That was something that I really learned, coming away from this program, is that there are so many people that you can learn from and really get to see what they did, and maybe model your future career off of that,” she said.

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