SJR Column: Camp Invention, June 2015

Let’s go invent tomorrow! This provocative invitation, attributed first to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, might also be the best way to describe an exciting week-long summer day camp that children from the Springfield area will experience June 22-26 on the UIS campus. These children will be part of Camp Invention, a new partnership involving UIS and Invent Now, a national non-profit organization that provides high quality science education in association with the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Given how quickly the program reached its capacity of 110 campers, I’d say this camp is going to be a whole lot of fun!

It’s all happening thanks to the initiative of UIS Chemistry professor Harsh Bapat, who has been looking for ways to nurture children’s natural interests in science ever since he noticed that his own first-year Chemistry students are sometimes lacking in the imagination and creativity so important for success in that challenging subject.

A native of Pune, India’s eighth-largest city, Dr. Bapat grew up in a family where creativity and imagination were nurtured from an early age in wide-ranging conversations at the dinner table. He describes his father as a Renaissance man who loved Shakespeare but had a Ph.D. in Chemistry. His mother was an English teacher.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in India, Harsh came to the U.S. as an international student and earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Missouri. A member of the UIS Chemistry faculty for 13 years, Harsh says:

“I’m not interested in just punching my time ticket; I want to give back to my community and hopefully spark a young child’s thinking and pathway to the sciences.”

According to the National Science Foundation: “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”

STEM professions, along with health care, are the fastest growing professional occupational categories in the U.S. economy.

This year’s Camp Invention program, directed by Dr. Bapat, is called “Illuminate” and is comprised of a series of high-energy, hands-on activities designed to encourage children to harness their curiosity at the same time they explore connections between science, technology, engineering and innovation.

Campers will have the opportunity to create and tinker throughout the week as they explore bioluminescence, circuitry, video game design, DIY kart designing, and battery-powered, life-saving devices. It all culminates with an Inventors Showcase on the last day of camp – a celebration of the week’s inventiveness.

Months of planning have included collaborating with UIS Teacher Education faculty including Dr. Cindy Wilson, who will serve as Assistant Director of Camp Invention, and Professor Victoria Childs, a specialist in elementary math and science education. Experienced teachers from area elementary schools have been recruited to serve as Camp Invention instructors. Instructors and other staff participate in a professional development program in advance of the camp in order to ensure their familiarity with the curriculum and materials.

Though this summer’s UIS Camp Invention is a first for our campus, 2015 is actually the 25th year of the national program which is being offered this summer at more than 1,200 sites across the country with more than 80,000 students participating. An independent evaluation of the program, conducted a year ago, demonstrated that Camp Invention has a positive impact on creativity and that children’s interest in STEM and invention increases as a result of their participation the program.

And I have a feeling that some of those creative Camp Invention students will come back to UIS in a few years as university students. They might even enroll in Dr. Bapat’s first-year Chemistry class on their way to an exciting STEM career. We’ll be delighted to welcome them!

Chancellor Susan J. Koch