A whole new level of fun and creativity awaited campers for the seventh annual Maker Camp week, which transitioned into a virtual Maker Challenge Week in August.

Elementary to high school-aged campers stretched their imaginations as they engaged in building, design, motion, science, art, and iteration. The Virginia Tech Maker Camp at the University Libraries is a collaboration with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), which houses the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts (CENI) providing resources and a culture of creativity in the region among school systems, museums, and other educational institutions.

The Maker Camp team is composed of faculty from ICAT and the University Libraries:

  • Scott Fralin, exhibits program manager and co-director of Maker Camp.
  • Sara Sweeney Bear, Fusion Studio manager and learning space assessment coordinator and co-director of Maker Camp.
  • Max Ofsa, 3D Design Studio manager and co-director of Maker Camp.
  • Kelsey Hammer, digital literacy multimedia production librarian.
  • Amanda MacDonald, undergraduate research services librarian.
  • Phyllis Newbill, outreach and engagement coordinator, CENI.

During the planning stages of this year’s Maker Camp, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in plans, giving the Maker Camp team a chance to get even more creative. They quickly shifted to a virtual camp the team called Maker Challenge Week

In the surrounding communities, families welcomed an innovative camp for their children to participate in at home while physical distancing. Since K-12 education moved online in the spring, the team thought students would enjoy hands-on making that required minimal screen time. 

“We wanted to create a digital experience where participants could step in and out at any time and use found materials in their homes,” said Hammer. “This would make sure that everyone could participate in a way that best suited their needs and was eco-friendly.”

The Maker Camp team built an interactive website to announce a new challenge each of the five days in coordination with the University Libraries’ FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. The website’s online guide shared examples of materials that could be used and provided experiences and information about the core concepts of Maker Camp - design, iteration, and engineering. 

There were several differences between Maker Camp and this year’s virtual Maker Challenge Week. Typically, Maker Camp is available to 25 middle school-aged participants who register and pay for the camp. This year, Maker Challenge Week was open to unlimited participants of all ages for free, which increased its community reach. 

“Participants weren’t in groups and they weren’t in person, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t engage and have fun,” said MacDonald. “We tried our best to write challenges in a way that any participant could find materials at home and build.” 

“Maker Camp is unique because it aims to keep the idea of ‘possibility’ open,” said Ofsa. “There is a certain quality of wonder in art and creation that is suppressed as a person grows older and as realistic expectations become understood.”

Ofsa said as people grow, they do not lose a capacity for being creative, but rather feel they need permission to pursue creative outlets. 

“An elementary age student needs less permission to think outside the box but also needs support and guidance to pursue the ideas they develop,” explained Ofsa. “Middle and high school students can be inspired by the sometimes outlandish ideas of a younger colleague but have the skills and wisdom to help.”

“My observation of learning leads me to believe that somewhere in the early to late teen years, our learning switches and has the side effect of diminishing the confidence of our abilities,” said Ofsa. “Reintroducing play as a teaching method gives permission to the learner to build confidence in their own skills and abilities.” 

Learning through experience and play are important ways to educate. 

Photo of a homemade cardboard plane and a quote from Sara Sweeney Bear printed on a cardboard cutout that reads, "I believe play is the best way for people of all ages to learn ..."

“I believe play is the best way for people of all ages to learn, especially soft skills like collaboration,” said Sweeney Bear. “I can honestly trace this value back to volunteering for Maker Camp as a Virginia Tech graduate student in education. The creative mess of Maker Camp felt like home to me, it’s been the best part of my summers, and has inspired the work I do in the University Libraries with college students.” 

Newbill added that “making helps people create a mindset of identifying and solving problems, which is critical to growth for humans.”

Maker Camp typically covers concepts like coding, circuitry, and 3D printing. This year, the team decided against including those items as part of the challenges since those are hard-to-access technologies and instead implemented a more self-guided approach focused on fostering natural curiosity and creating with common materials. 

“It’s always a challenge to deliver educational experiences online, especially when a lot of folks were harried by the abrupt switch to online education in the spring,” Bear said. “We wanted to make sure that, although our challenges and the instructional content would all be online, participants were mainly interacting with their physical environment.” 

A top priority during Maker Camp week is keeping participants safe so they can have fun and learn. For virtual camp, the team had the challenge of conveying safe making practices, such as keeping your workspace clean and using tools like hot glue with appropriate supervision without actually being in the space with the makers.

“The activities we do at Maker Camp and Maker Challenge Week are the kinds of things I enjoy doing myself, I always have,” said Fralin. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to share something I enjoy so much with the surrounding communities. Hopefully, some of the participants found it meaningful as I have my entire life.”

Throughout the week, participants submitted photos and short videos of their creations. As camp came to an end, Hammer made a fun video showcasing the camper’s creative works. Hammer said, “The amazing creations and imaginations of people of all ages were awe inspiring!”

Maker Challenge Week was a success and the team plans to continue to offer this at-home virtual version even as Maker Camp returns in-person, under safer conditions. 

“Building something from your imagination, an idea, is good for the soul,” said MacDonald. “This year may have looked and functioned differently, but I think we still created an event with the heart of Maker Camp.”

Written by:  Elise Monsour Puckett