Federal Way’s Camp Invention inspires children in STEM, creativity

Seth Thomas, a third grader, sat in the back of a Green Gables Elementary classroom in the middle of summer. He quickly made last-minute improvements to his battery-powered car.

Seth Thomas, a third grader, sat in the back of a Green Gables Elementary classroom in the middle of summer. He quickly made last-minute improvements to his battery-powered car.

His peers, all wearing Camp Invention shirts, shuffled around the classroom as they prepared for when their parents would finally get the opportunity to see what they had been working on at the day camp.

“It runs by a battery,” Seth explained, adding that he decorated his car blue and green for the Seahawks. “The battery is connected to these wires that goes to here and this is attached to this and that holds it down. Then the thing right here — it spins.”

Not only was Thomas able to create and explain how his car could operate by itself, he discovered a way to make it go faster by attaching a rubberband in a strategic location along one of the wheels.

“I like art and science a lot and that’s why I came here,” he said, noting that it was his first time at the camp.

Seth, like the other 100-plus students at Camp Invention, participated in different activities from Aug. 4-8 that honed in on 21st century thinking skills children today are expected to learn.

“Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication,” said Mary Stoyko, a Green Gables teacher and local director of the Federal Way Camp Invention, a nationwide program. “They’re really the skills adults need in life. Those are the four things that have really been identified that, without those skills, it’s challenging to be successful.”

The camp’s different activities range from interactive games to creating prototypes of an invention.

Stoyko said the exercise module appears to be a class of P.E., but the kids are prompted to play and brainstorm ways to make a game easier, more difficult and different.

“They’re working as a team …” she said. “It goes beyond, ‘Let’s go to a summer camp and have fun.’ It’s life-long learning.”

But children at Camp Invention certainly do have fun.

“My favorite part about the camp has probably been the design studio because we could make whatever we wanted,” said Emma Durance, a third grader at Green Gables. “I made a wedding dress, it was big and puffy and it was made out of bubble wrap.”

Fourth grader Jaely John created a cardboard box dog named Bob.

“It’s just right up her alley, she loves it,” said Jaely’s mom, Annie John. “Every day she comes home — it takes us 15 minutes to get home and the whole 15 minutes she’s just talking about every single second of the camp.”

Christie Gagnier sent three of her sons to the camp, two of whom phased out of the camp after this summer. Next year, they plan to become counselors in training.

“These two guys were in separate groups and they both wanted to make an invention for their brother who has Down syndrome,” Gagnier said on the brink of tears referring to her sons Trent and Trevor. “So he made a camera and he made a DNA repair. For them to think of that and they’re not in the same group, I mean, this thing really sparks their imagination.”

While the inventions and ideas may not come to life in one week at Camp Invention, the camp’s programs are meant to inspire so that maybe one day a prototype does become a reality.

“It started with the STEM movement,” Stoyko said. “There’s a lot of focus on science, technology, engineering and math. The teacher who started it saw the opportunity, took advantage of it and the kids loved it so much the first year that they asked for us to bring it back. The parents and kids both were really energized by it.”

The camp started at Green Gables Elementary six years ago when Stoyko was just an instructor. The previous two years she was an assistant director but recently took over as local director when the first director moved to a new school.

This past school year, Stoyko was able to nearly double the number of participants from last year’s 66 to 110 this year — a full house, she said.

“We have representation from 29 school districts,” she said. “They were in Federal Way, Auburn, Kent, Covington, Seattle. We had some travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico, private and public school representation.”

She also worked to fundraise for children to attend the camp on scholarship. Camp Invention provides two scholarships but Stoyko said there’s a greater need.

With the regular price of the camp at $225, ($35 off alumni discount and $25 off early registration discount) Stoyko recognizes not many families in Federal Way can afford to send their children to the camp.

“The kids that were able to come here on scholarships wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” she said.

Although Stoyko raised $1,000 in private donations for the scholarships, which served about four students, she hoped to receive more from local engineering and architectural firms.

But nobody responded — absolutely zero, she said.

“If I can offer even five kids an opportunity like this, it could be life changing and I think have that opportunity to impact their future … I had a parent tell me on Monday, she said, ‘My daughter talked about inventing for six hours last night.’ She said, ‘I couldn’t get her to stop.’”

Not only does Camp Invention provide children an outlet for creation, but it teaches leadership skills to counselors-in-training and also provides high school students paid summer internships.

“They get $150 stipend for the week, which is not a lot but they get a letter of recommendation and they can use it on a college application,” Stoyko said, adding that there were 10 positions this summer. “And it looks really good to have a paid internship, working with kids in the science education field.”

Although Stoyko would love to double donations, double the amount of students on scholarships and maybe one day expand the camp to another school, her ultimate goal is to keep providing the experience for students.

“The passion our staff has for making this a great experience for kids — these are all teachers who are off for the summer and here they are coming back in August just to work with kids,” Stoyko said, adding there’s one volunteer a year too.

“I actually have a 1-year-old and I came back last year after maternity leave,” Stoyko said. “This was my first experience back in the classroom before coming back for the school year because I couldn’t skip a year. It’s fun, I look forward to it.”

For more information about Camp Invention, visit www.campinvention.org.

Mary Stoyko, local director for Federal Way’s Camp Invention and teacher at Green Gables Elementary school. RAECHEL DAWSON, the Mirror