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Children of invention 'build cool stuff '

Tim Connelly (left) of Bolton and Jimmy Connelly of North Andover coat a bat they made out of fiberglass with a resin in a product design class at UMass-Lowell. Tim Connelly (left) of Bolton and Jimmy Connelly of North Andover coat a bat they made out of fiberglass with a resin in a product design class at UMass-Lowell. (JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF)

LOWELL -- Fifteen-year-old Rachel Wilk of Tewksbury was hiking in Chesterfield, N.H., last month when a fellow camper sprained her ankle. As darkness fell, a counselor had to bring flashlights to the injured girl and the campers who had stayed by her side. Then the counselor had to carry the girl, while awkwardly maneuvering a flashlight of her own, down the trail.

"I thought it would have helped if the flashlight was somehow attached to the backpack," said Wilk, who recently created a prototype of her invention at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's DesignCamp. With the flip of a small switch, Rachel demonstrated to a visitor at the Electronic Bling workshop how the light-emitting diodes she had sewn into a backpack strap became illuminated. This design, she reasoned, would allow a hiker to see the oncoming path while keeping both hands free.

DesignCamp "is a lot better than school -- we don't have to waste time taking notes and having them show us how to do something when we can do it ourselves," Wilk said. "Their motto is true to their word. We really do build cool stuff."

Now in its eighth year, DesignCamp is a summer science and engineering enrichment program offering 15 project-based workshops for students in grades 5 to 11.

Douglas Prime, executive director and cofounder of the university's Future Engineers Center, said the program is ideally suited for any student, almost regardless of math and science aptitude, who enjoys hands-on design, experimentation, and troubleshooting for projects they create. One girl, for example, enrolled specifically because she wanted to design a bedroom security system to keep out her siblings.

"I'm worried that with MCAS, school is becoming so book-driven that kids don't have the time or opportunity for engaging projects and authentic problem-solving activities," Prime said. "I know not all the kids here are going to become engineers, but I believe most of them can become more empowered as critical and creative problem solvers. Most of all, we want them to have fun."

Prime, who founded DesignCamp with UMass-Lowell chemical engineering professor and dean emeritus Krishna Vedula, said the goal of the program is to stimulate students' interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A former mechanical engineer and middle school teacher in the Lancaster, Bolton, and Acton public school systems, Prime developed and taught the first DesignCamp workshop in 2000. That year, three one-week sessions of "Electrical and Mechanical Gizmos" -- which involved building a capacitor-powered spy mobile with microphone and a candy safe equipped with an electromagnetic lock -- attracted about 60 middle school students.

Today, some 550 students attend the summer workshops, which run for four weeks. About 35 percent are girls, according to Prime, and nearly half are returning campers. Because of individual and corporate sponsors, more than one-quarter of campers receive scholarships toward the $380 weekly tuition.

This summer, a team of 27 middle and high school science and technology teachers leads workshops such as Robo Alley, in which students design and build robots programmed for obstacle courses, search-and-rescue missions, and sports competitions; Carnival Contraptions, in which air pressure, motors, gears, and circuits are used to design a drink mixer, spin art machine, marshmallow cannon, water balloon dunk tank, and helium airship; and Crime Science, in which students analyze fingerprints, hair, fibers, and ink with chemicals and microscopes. Two years ago, an advanced preengineering workshop -- DC High Tech -- was added to provide a realistic engineering program for experienced participants who would otherwise be too old for the camp.

During a recent visit to the Electronics and Music workshop, which emphasizes the physics of sound, 14-year-old Anthony Altieri of Fitchburg demonstrated the working stereo speaker he had fashioned from foam board, a styrofoam plate, latex rubber, an electromagnetic coil, and a powerful magnet. The magnet moves the coil back and forth, which vibrates the air to make sound waves.

"I like music, so I thought it would be cool to make a speaker," Altieri said. "At first, I didn't think it would work."

In the Game Makers workshop, 13-year-old Drew Hinckley of Dracut designed his own version of the Pac-Man computer game. He also signed up for a second week-long session, during which he plans to finish designing a game in which a motorcycle must successfully navigate rough road and other obstacles to progress to the next level.

"It's my fourth year at DesignCamp, but this is my favorite" workshop, Hinckley said.

"I love computer games, and now I get to make my own. It's really cool."

After becoming friends at last summer's Game Makers workshop, 15-year-old Benjamin Corman of North Andover and 14-year-old David DeLuca of Burlington continued to meet over the past year to work on various versions of their game in which a robot combats aliens that have invaded Earth. They signed up for the same Game Makers and Electronics and Music sessions this summer as well.

"I've always wanted to be a software engineer," DeLuca said, "and learning how to program a game is the first step to having a career in computers."

Corman enjoys the "different world" created by computer games, and he said teacher Michael Penta's expertise and enthusiasm make the DesignCamp classroom a fun place to spend a portion of the summer.

Penta, a Future Engineers Center program developer, said he enjoys watching the students have so much fun that they don't realize they're learning math along the way. In fact, he said, they become so engrossed in their projects that they forget about lunch.

"I'm always saying, 'Come on guys, I'm starving!' " Penta said with a laugh. "I've been yelled at three times this week because kids have been late for parent pickup. They just don't want to leave."

DesignCamp runs through tomorrow. For more information, visit designcamp.uml.edu.

Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cantrell@globe.com.

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