In previous blogs I have written about my students engaging in a spring hard problem each year. After learning new tools, material science and the basics of patterns and structures, these projects are a deep design challenge that students engage in for an entire semester in teams of four to five. The level of cooperation that this work involves is intense and can result in a team breaking up and reforming, though this is infrequent. The value of this work is that students are able to tackle problems and design challenges that they would not be able to complete if working alone. This summer, I have had the fortune of spending a week at Beam Camp, a three week session of summer camp in the woods of New Hampshire where ten to seventeen year olds work with graduate level architects and designers to construct massive installations on their one hundred acre campus with two lakes. This blog is a reflection on my time at Beam Camp and the overall value of allowing young learners to work together to build projects that would be impossible for any single person to accomplish alone in only a few weeks.
Building Together, a Philosophical Rationale
To help explain what I was seeing at Beam Camp, founders Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn brought up the work of Richard Sennett, and Neil Postman as their “role models” for the design of Beam’s programming. Sennet is the author of Craftsman, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation and a philosopher known for speaking out about the role of cooperation in urban settings. In a talk entitled the Architecture of Cooperation Sennett defines cooperation is working with others to do what you can not do for yourself. He goes on to define hard cooperation as a form of making human connections when people do not know each other or have little in common. Encountering difference to engage in creative work is at the core of this camp’s ethos. Postman on the other hand was an outspoken critique of public education, see his work entitled The End of Education: Redefining the value of school. According to Postman, “The idea of public education depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. What makes public schools public is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.”
These philosophers seem to lend their ideas to the creation of accessible educational experiences that work outside of the public school system to redefine collaboration, self-identity and society. Indeed, one can not spend time at Beam Camp without feeling this community generated sense of place and belonging, where everyone’s personal narrative matters.
Building a Foundation
In the first two weeks of each three week summer session, each camper, grouped by age and experience level, takes workshops in four areas called the fundamentals. The fundamentals included the following:
Project & Building: construction, carpentry, metal work, project planning
Computing/Electronics: circuitry, physical computing, coding
Design/Prototyping: model-making, design thinking, digital fabrication
Craft & Materials: textiles, knitting, sewing, ceramics
Exposure to the workshop tools and principles arms the camper with the skills and confidence to then contribute to the larger camp wide project.
Selecting the Big Project
Each session, or twice a summer, campers undertake a major art installation that will live in the woods of New Hampshire on their summer campus. The projects are selected from various submissions from artists, designers and architects from all over the world. The project that I got to watch being fabricated during the first of the two summer sessions was called The Universal Play Machine Project, designed by two London based architects from The Mobile Studio. The project consisted of welding five metal frames that could support one hundred cards each, all traced and colored by hand, that would be flipped using a series of metal gears and a crank. The effect? Five giant flip books, all with a theme centered on birds. The steel frames were finished with a reflective acrylic wall and strips of LED’s to illuminate the gearing and mechanisms that help to turn the massive animations.
Below: Architects Chee-Kit Lai, Director of The Mobile Studio architecture group and William Atkins, architectural designer
Orchestrating Big Projects with 90+ Campers
Taking big project ideas from a set of architectural drawings and creating step by step work plans that camp staff could build with nine to seventeen year olds was the job of project director Morgan Street and program director Zena Pesta. Street and Pesta orchestrated a very talented and hardworking staff of fundamentalist teachers, camp counselors and camp fellows (older campers that wish to add leadership to their portfolios) in the day to day building tasks that added to the overall fabrication of the Universal Play Machine.
Campers were placed into mixed age groups called waves and would rotate through the wood shop, the metal shop and a new maker space called the “Slab Lab” to either weld and grind the frames, cut and paint the wooden structure that supported the animated cards, or trace and color the cards. Daily tasks were organized using a challenge (see image) that shop managers, fundamentalists and fellows would then have to solve with their wave.
Welders of all ages contributed to the fabrication of the steel frames. Here an eleven year old girl takes her turn forming a joint in the frame.
The central structure in the mechanism was made of wood. Fabrication of this larger than life spool was done in the wood shop. Metal rods (bottom left) hold the white PVC cards that would be hand drawn to create the moving animation effect.
Over five hundred cards were eventually created to make the giant flip books. The original drawings were made by hand by the designers, then scanned into digital format. The digital images were then projected onto a wall where the PVC cards hung so campers could trace the drawings in graphite. Tracings were then meticulously numbered by color and then hand drawn to recreate the drawings at over 100% their original size.
Later in the process, campers would also get to apply their electronics skills by helping to install the LED strips using a 110volt power line drawn to the installation site in the woods.
Experiencing Beam Camp was like being thrown into a universe of creativity, community and invisible organization that would impress the most productive of organizations. The most incredible part was the range of the ages and the diversity of the campers adding to the project. Second to the diversity was the talented staff who seemed to artfully balance professionalism with a sense of family like fun. When chatting with program director Zena Pesta about the goals of the program, she stated, “We want to cultivate the sense that we are all learners and we are all teachers.” This statement of democratic education and authentic collaboration is one that reverberates throughout most makerspaces, this one just happened to be a collection of makerspaces in the middle of the woods of New Hampshire.