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Camp Invention keeps elementary students thinking during summer

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By AJ Vicens

For the most part, the hallways at Blue Heron Elementary School are exactly as expected during the summer: mostly empty with the occasional custodian working on projects that weren’t possible during the school year.

But at one end of the school comes a familiar sound: children laughing and talking, and perhaps most importantly, learning.

Two dozen elementary school students from across South Jeffco took part in Camp Invention last week, a weeklong nationwide summer class designed to keep students’ minds churning through a period that often is filled with swimming and video games.

Children are given a problem, a set of materials and rules, and asked to come up with a solution. The more ideas the better, pushing the students to look at obstacles in a variety of ways while building teamwork skills.

"I like being with some of my friends," said Zach Wilson, an 8-year-old heading into third grade at Blue Heron. He said that although he likes all the traditional activities of summer break, he didn't miss much during the week he spent at Camp Invention. "I'm having as much fun as I would have this summer. I really like this camp."

His favorite activity of the week was designing a small Viking ship that had to be tested for buoyancy in a small pool of water.

"I like building things that float," Wilson said, noting just how neat real-life boats and ships are. "They're like floating boxes with people in them."

Kim Fognani, a fifth-grade teacher at Blue Heron, was this year's director of Camp Invention. She said the majority of the children involved are above-average learners, and the camp allows them to keep their brains engaged in the summer.

"We need to continue to stimulate them through the summer," she said, adding that most children lose some of the material they've learned in a school year over summer break. "This is just a summer jump start for them heading into next year."

Despite the innovative education and fun, Fognani said she was troubled by the drop in enrollment this year. Fognani said there were more than 80 students at Camp Invention during summer 2008, compared with 24 for summer 2009.

The slumping economy may play a role, as the camp costs roughly $200 per student. "That's a lot of money," Fognani said. "I could understand why it would be hard."

There are discounts for families with multiple children enrolled and for children who come back year after year. Despite the sharp decline in enrollment, Fognani said she still enjoys the camp.

"I just love all the ideas," Fognani said. "(The children) have room to be more creative." In a typical classroom setting, it's hard to find time for thorough thought-provoking projects, she said. With Camp Invention, though, the students are only working on these projects and have a student-teacher ratio of about three or four to one.

"I think making things is the fun of it," said 10-year-old Eric Hedlund seconds after he and several other students completed a challenge that required building a device that would reach out and touch a bell hanging three feet above their heads and 4 feet in front of them. The device had to be made from a short styrofoam tube, several small Styrofoam meat trays, yarn, tape and large popsicle sticks.

Hedlund's favorite exercise was designing a catapult to softly throw water balloons, getting nearly all the children wet.

And why was it so much fun to get soaked at school?

"Because," he said, "I get to make stuff."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.