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At Natick camp, invention is the key

Lauren Lee disassembles a CD player, salvaging components to make a pin ball machine.

Chris Christo for The Boston Globe

Lauren Lee disassembles a CD player, salvaging components to make a pin ball machine.

Twenty children entering first grade this fall settled on a rug at Kelsi Hawkes’s feet a few weeks ago at Memorial Elementary School in Natick.

Like any elementary school classroom in the country, the alphabet and number lines were posted above a white board behind Hawkes, but she was not holding a book, and the ensuing lesson could not have been further from story time.

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The tops of the knee-high desks clustered throughout the room were cloaked by black garbage bags, while safety goggles and sanitary wipes sat at each seat. Old sewing machines, computer towers, VCRs, and DVD players waited in the wings to be dismantled by little fingers and thumbs on 40 eager hands.

This is a class for inquisitive young minds, for children who cannot stop tinkering with something until they take it apart and figure out how it works, and how the parts they have in their hands can be used to build something else — like a pinball machine, for example. This is Club Invention, a class for tomorrow’s inventors.

“Instead of having one person do the job and everyone else just stand around and watch, we’re going to have one volunteer from each group make the flippers, and we’re going to have the rest of the group continue to take apart their take-apart-machines,” Hawkes told the group participating in the Club Invention program’s debut in Natick.

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“And as you are taking apart your machines you are looking for pieces that we can put on our pinball machines tomorrow, because tomorrow we’re going to start to build our pinball machines — put the bumpers on, we’re going to build the tracks, we’re going to make the traps. All of those are going to go on our playing fields tomorrow, so we need to make sure we have all of the pieces we want to use.”

Supported by the federal Patent and Trademark Office and the not-for-profit National Inventors Hall of Fame, Club Invention is a weeklong summertime day club for students in grades 1 through 6 interested in hands-on problem-solving through the use of science, technology, engineering, math, and good old-fashioned tinkering.

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Club Invention was founded in 1990 by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which has since moved its museum from Ohio to the Patent and Trademark Office’s headquarters near Washington, D.C. The enrichment program has served more than 900,000 children at more than 1,500 sites nationwide.

The first Club Invention in Massachusetts was held 13 years ago in Newton, and this summer the program was offered in 32 Bay State communities; the local participants also included Acton, Ashland, Holliston, Littleton, Maynard, Medway, Milford, Watertown, Wellesley, and Westborough.

Boxborough resident Wendy White recently sent her 10-year-old daughter to the Acton program for the first time.

“A lot of the camps she’s been to this summer were sports-oriented,” White said. “She wanted to try something different. She liked to take all the recycled materials and use her imagination to build whatever invention came to mind. She is looking at things differently and wondering how things work.

“She has thoughts in her mind of going into engineering someday, so this is a chance for her to explore that.”

Matthew Joseph, principal of Natick’s Memorial Elementary School, learned about the program from its regional program manager for New England, Patsy Eldridge, at a conference for Massachusetts principals in May. Joseph said he liked that the program uses local teachers and high school students as instructors.

Joseph had hoped 35 children would sign up, and said he was thrilled when it netted 99 students and four councilors in training. He put his 10-year-old son into Wellesley’s Club Invention this summer, and said that the tuition, typically about $245, was well worth it.

When he visited the club on parent’s day, Joseph said, he was more than just impressed that his son helped build a car that floated on water; he was also amazed that the incoming first-graders built a car that ran on double-A batteries.

“It wasn’t Lightning McQueen, it wasn’t flashy, but they got the concept. If students are exposed and have a genuine connection’’ to the processes involved in inventing, he said, “that will only grow through the middle and high school years, absolutely.”

Memorial School third-grade teacher Kendra Weiler, who was the site director for Natick’s club, said it was nice to expose students to activities they normally do not get to do during the regular school year.

“There’s so much curriculum to cover that a lot of the fun stuff gets cut a bit, so this is a way to cover those standards,” she said. “They build things, they take things apart, and they explore different kinds of technology.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for the kids to explore creativity and use their imagination in ways they don’t normally get to in the school day. They get to solve real-world problems.”

The themes for the projects are the same across each age group, but are tailored to each ability level.

Eldridge said Club Invention was doing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) before it was a buzzword, and the curriculum’s key components include immersing students in a “story line” or “authentic experience” similar to what the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees started out doing. She said it is also important to note that the students are not creating polished products, but prototypes. And no matter what they work on, they always follow the club’s mantra: create, test, and re-create.

“That kind of approach to problem- solving works no matter what you are trying to do,” Eldridge said. “It gets them comfortable with failure. It gets them comfortable with ‘if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, learn why it doesn’t work.’

“It’s the Thomas Edison approach: ‘I didn’t fail. I just learned all the ways it didn’t work.’ ”

Collaboration is another key lesson, especially for the youngest students who are prone to think that building off someone else’s idea is copying.

“They don’t want to share an idea, they want to keep it to themselves,” Eldridge said. “It’s tough for them.’’ The club is “a great way for younger students to learn positive skills in collaboration. Then they get excited when they see how much more they can do with three of them working on a pinball machine rather than just one. It’s kind of an ‘aha’ moment.”

Eldridge said that feeding first-graders’ natural inclination for destruction is not exactly inventing. But it does plant the seeds.

“They are starting along the lines thinking, being inspired, and that’s what we are trying to do,” she said.

Collaboration did not seem to be an issue for the incoming first-graders at Memorial Elementary.

Before Hawkes unleashed the children to dismantle their “take-apart machines,” she reminded them to wear their safety goggles at all times. She also told them not to use screwdrivers and pliers as hammers.

She asked the group, “If you need to hammer something or pry something, who does it?” When the children responded in unison, she reinforced their answer. “That’s right. An adult. An adult. Let’s make sure we are doing that.”

A few children sat at a half-moon-shaped table to install the flippers into their pinball machines (cardboard boxes fastened together with duct tape). The others retrieved their “take-apart items” that they brought from home and went to work at the garbage-bag-covered desks. They mined the guts of VCRs and portable CD players for parts (circuit boards, wires, and other gizmos) that would make up the obstacles in their pinball machines.

When Eldridge helped a group of children take out the circuit board of a device, they shouted “OMG, OMG.”

At another table, 6-year-old Jack Dimmick pulled an old VCR (that he called a “broken DVD player”) out of a canvas bag.

“We’re going to break it,” he gleefully declared while taking red-handled pliers to a large green circuit board. “We’re breaking stuff!”

Across the table, classmate Laura Lee’s safety goggles fogged up as she dismantled a silver Sony Discman.

“Jack, can you help me?” Lee asked while wielding a pair of wire cutters, finally breaking her concentration.

“Sure,” Jack said.

“I need you to hold this while I cut,” she said.

Justin A. Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com.
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