Ella establishes engineering camp


In August of 2018, senior Ella Schwartz said she was driving through the “boring and flat” state of Wisconsin with her mother and looking at colleges when she was suddenly struck with an idea, inspired by her love of robotics. “I decided, while I was speaking with my mother, to start a free engineering camp for elementary school students in my hometown of Plainville,” she said.

Ella took robotics while she was a middle schooler in Plainville, and she credits that with helping launch her into joining the KO robotics team, which in turn motivated her to start the summer camp. Ella said she started drafting a plan to present to the superintendent of schools in Plainville. The plan included an hour-by-hour schedule as well as some example engineering challenges so the superintendent could get a feel for what the camp would entail.

When picking the engineering challenges she was going to include, she thought back to her prior experiences. “I had gone to a bunch of engineering camps and so I wanted to do some of those challenges,” she said. “I also googled some to make sure I had enough.” Ella anticipated doing up to ten of the challenges, but she planned 20 just in case. “Some challenges take longer than expected, some shorter, and if the kids are having a lot of fun, you may want to keep doing that for a little longer,” she said.

Once her proposal was approved, Ella set her eyes on the Jamie Garfield ’00 Grant, awarded through KO. The application stated that the focus of the project should be a “hands-on” experience, as opposed to a purely academic or theoretical pursuit. The grant allows for the funding of both the participation in existing programs as well as original proposals. Ella applied for the grant and was named a recipient. “That helped pay for t-shirts, almost all our supplies except for the robotics parts, as well as first aid kits,” Ella said. Ella estimated that the whole process of planning took between 30 and 50 hours.

Once the 20 camper spots were filled, Ella sent out a pre-camp survey to participating families asking children about what aspect of the engineering camp they were most interested in and asking parents about how their children dealt with frustration.

The mornings consisted of engineering challenges that Ella had compiled, with a snack break in between. Some of the challenges included Penny Boats, an activity where small boats were built using aluminum foil and pennies were stacked on top until they sunk, as well as Newspaper Chairs, where campers were given a stack of newspapers to make a chair that could support their classmates. “The challenges are designed to induce frustration so the campers can learn to work past it,” Ella said. “There was crying at times, and some campers were mad that we wouldn’t give them the answers, but it’s all a part of the process.”

The purpose of the camp, according to Ella, was to teach the campers communication and cooperation through engineering. “I feel those are the most important skills that anybody will need in any future career, no matter if it’s as an engineer or something else entirely,” she said.

In the afternoons, campers designed VEX IQ robots. They were sorted into ‘lanyard groups’ by their grade. After spending the first two days building their robots, campers then participated in activities with them, such as driving on the field, playing small games, and programming the robots to drive in a circle.

One day, Ella and the other counselors made a maze of tape on the floor of the main atrium, where they had the students pretend they were robots. “We would blindfold them and have somebody else direct them through the maze. This is where we taught them about angles, so the students would be able to say ‘turn to the right 90°’ and they could apply this to programming,” she said.

KO senior Mike Doyle, along with three “junior counselors,” (8th-graders who went to the Plainville Middle School,) helped Ella out with the planning and running of the camp. Ella’s mother, who also works at the Plainville Middle School and teaches robotics during the school year, helped Ella book the classrooms and assisted her during the camp if they needed an extra hand.

As part of the post-camp survey, Ella asked parents if they believed their children improved their problem-solving and their ability to control their own frustration. All of them said yes, and Ella believes the camp was a huge success. “The plan is to do it again. We’ll apply for a different grant and hopefully we also have some volunteers who can make it possible,” she said.