Maker Camp becomes the after-school program you wish you had as a kid

"One thing we can bet on is that 'making' engages kids," Dale Dougherty, Maker Media founder told Engadget. Anyone that's ever been to a Maker Faire knows that's a solid wager. Children routinely crowd around booths and attractions at the event peppering proprietors with questions about how their devices work. They drag their parents to the marketplace to buy Arduinos, soldering guns, and DIY kits. Getting littles ones excited about science and crafts is easy when it's right in their faces, but then what? That was the question on Dougherty's mind, "what happens on the Monday following a Faire?"

The initial answer to keeping kids interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education) topics was an online summer camp. A virtual meeting place for kids looking to expand their DIY skills and connect with other like-minded makers. Of course, once summer is over, those same kids are left in the lurch. Some schools have implemented a by-the-book rote memorization curriculum with very little hands-on opportunities. So now Maker Camp is leaving its summer roots and going year round with weekly projects.

"We (educational systems) fail to understand the importance of really engaging kids" said Dougherty. He points to the immediate feedback children get while putting together a project as opposed to reading a book or being lectured in a class. Instead, the hands-on approach creates a framework where they are testing and trying things and naturally progressing. He added, "I also believe 'making' makes kids better learners."

But the kids aren't left to their own devices. Usually a teacher or other adult leads the weekly sessions and is fed information about projects before they go live every Monday. Weekly ventures become part of longer term themes. The current topic is Fall and incorporates a few halloween-based projects, including a pressure sensitive booby trap with an LED ghost and a giant emoji mask. The programs themselves are designed to use inexpensive supplies found around the house.

The Summer Camp program has over 42,000 kids excited about technology and crafts. Those children are spread out over 1,000 Maker Camp affiliate sites at schools, libraries, 4-H Clubs and Intel Computing Clubs. And it's growing, Maker Media expects by the end of 2015, there will be 1,500 physical sites for youngsters to gather and work on projects.

Anyone interested in hosting their own camp site can fill out application and will receive an initial kit and potentially supplies for some of the upcoming projects.

Of course individual kids at home can participate on their own. And while working with a team in real life is ideal, working with an online community is second nature. "These kids grew up on the Internet and love sharing with their family. But really, it's their peers they're trying to impress most of the time," Kelli Townley, head of production at Maker Camp told Engadget.

Dougherty agrees that it's not completely about the projects, "if you think about camp as a metaphor, it's getting together and being social with other kids. Think about how much learning goes on, you're learning about people, you're learning to play with other people and you're doing things you're interested in."

In addition to making friends both locally and online, there's the confidence boost kids get when they finish a project. When one thing is done, they want to do and learn more. The hands-on experience gives them the problem solving skills they may not be exposed too at school or at home. Dougherty added, "making is an invitation, 'who wants to do this?' universally the answer is 'yes!"