Chris and Annie Scott gave the 30 elementary-age kids in their summer camp a task Thursday morning: construct a crane using plastic cups, wooden skewering sticks, string, a small battery-powered motor and as much tape as they needed. The crane’s objective? Lift a paper cup filled with marbles.
The kids, ages 8-12, all had different strategies, some more successful than others. One team used so much tape on its crane that it looked like a mummy. Another group awkwardly propped up its crane with skewers, making it look like a wobbling tent.
One pair of incoming Tom McCall Elementary fourth graders — Quinn Kirkpatrick and Toby Simmons, both 9 — had their crane lifting marbles with ease. But it took a while for them to get to that point.
“First, we couldn’t figure out how to get the pulleys (working); then, we had to get it balanced,” Quinn said.
This crane-building activity served multiple purposes that went well beyond lifting a cup of marbles. It not only taught students about simple machines like pulleys, as well as physics and engineering design, but it also taught students about the value of teamwork and persistence after initial designs fail, said Chris Scott, co-founder of Minecrafter Camp, a science- and engineering-based camp built around the popular video game, Minecraft.
“We don’t know the jobs of tomorrow, so what are we doing today to get kids ready?” he said. “We need people that can think through stuff, and push through the hard stuff and try ideas and be willing to put themselves out there.”
Thursday’s lessons didn’t end with simple machines. Later, Chris Scott said students were going to build virtual simple machines using Minecraft, an open-ended game where players can use tools and materials to build anything they can imagine. Kids in the camp use the program to boost their creativity and problem-solving skills.
“Leveraging what kids love, Minecraft in particular, helps bring learning to life,” Chris Scott said. “This isn’t a video game camp — we’re using gaming to accomplish educational goals.”
Mike Nye, the assistant director of instructional technology for the Redmond School District, said the camp was free for all students thanks to a federal grant the district received. The school district is using $11,000 from the grant to pay the Scotts and their nonprofit educational group, Woven Learning and Technology, as well as two high school assistants.
The five-day camp, which finished Friday, was a hot ticket. The 30 available spots for the first-year camp filled up almost immediately, and 130 students wound up on a waiting list, Nye said.
“Parents were just bam, bam, signing up,” he said. “It shows the kids want to be engaged in this type of learning, and tells me we need to go after a bigger grant next year and include more kids.”
Of course, the massive popularity of Minecraft — more than 91 million people play the game monthly, according to Business Insider — probably helped get kids into the camp. Nye described one kid entering M.A. Lynch Elementary for the camp as “bouncing like Tigger,” reminding him of the famously energetic “Winnie The Pooh” character.
Chris Scott said he and Annie have hosted Minecraft-themed summer camps around the West Coast during the summer for the past six years. He came up with the idea when he was a middle school teacher in Santa Ynez, California, when a few students asked if they could use the video game to prove they learned certain concepts.
He said the game inspires kids to take risks in building machines and designs, fostering their creativity. Hence, many of the activities in the camp require students to build objects in the game.
“It’s not an exact replica of real life; it’s just enough of an abstract version of yourself that players feel comfortable to take chances,” he said.
Students in the camp built many real-world objects, as well, from “flying machines” made of tissue paper and paper trays to wooden laptop computers. The laptops are Piper kits, which teach young students about circuitry and how computers work — a concept that can be difficult to explain to young kids, Chris Scott said.
“We may have this concept that computers understand code and follow instructions, but that’s such an abstract thing for 8, 9, 10 year olds,” he said. “So let’s build something with nuts and bolts, put it together, see as it turns on.”
Another major theme throughout the week was teamwork. The kids were put in teams and built real-world machines together, as well as participated in “survival adventure challenges” in Minecraft, which require teamwork to complete.
A trio of girls entering third grade said what they’ve enjoyed most about the camp was how they bonded as a team to build things.
“I think working with these two has been awesome,” said Emma Nye, 8. “We don’t give up, and we keep trying, and we work together.”
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