Camp Invention in Oakboro leads to question: Who knew garden slugs could be inspiring?

A sticky, icky fake garden slug known as Allie Oops had an impact at Camp Invention at Oakboro Choice STEM School (OCSS) in mid-July.

“Allie Oops reminded us to persevere when our ideas didn’t work,” said camper Brennan Yow, an OCSS rising sixth grader.

“Failure is okay, but you have to stick to it.”

STEM classes emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics with common sense application mixed in.

“At our school we make use of STEM every day, in every class, even language arts,” said Jennifer “LJ” Crawford, camp director and STEM coach at OCSS.

“Our classrooms are very active — it may seem like controlled chaos,” added Crawford. “We’re definitely more hands-on than traditional classrooms, but if you can’t play in science, where can you play?”

The hands-on philosophy was in full swing at the National Inventors Hall of Fame camp. The NIHF instituted Camp Invention in 1990 to inspire younger generations in the art of innovation.

According to the website,, by 2018 camps were held in every state, reaching more than 1.5 million students. The organization provides host schools with a complete package of planned activities, materials and instructions, even daily newsletters to parents. At camp’s end, children take home all finished projects — called prototypes — with memories of all the fun.

Children moved from one class to another each day where a teacher and volunteer student interns directed and assisted with activities. The camp had a 1:8 teacher-to-student ratio, and a waiting list of teachers willing to sign on for the four-day summer program.

Rising Oakboro STEM third-grader Clara Bolding constructs a thumb piano. (Photo by JO GREY)

“We’ve wanted to host the camp for a long time, but Covid restrictions put a hold on plans. This year is our first year,” said Crawford.

Camp Invention is a logical extension of the school’s academic year and is made available to students inside or outside Stanly County. Though Crawford and the staff prepared for a maximum enrollment of 120 children, the base cost of $260 may have kept the number down.

“Our plan is to offer discounts and scholarships for next year’s camp, so the cost isn’t prohibitive,” said Crawford.

The 2023 camp theme, “I Wonder…,” played out across four investigative units each day.

In the MimicBot class kids wondered how the generic, plastic robot worked. First, each student took apart a talking robot, much like older generations tinkered with discarded radios. They had to identify each part, checking it off the parts list in a personal camp journal.

After the deconstruction, each MimicBot was reassembled as a “Stuffie.” Kids then got to “style” and adapt each Stuffie in a unique way so that a design patent could be obtained before the “Strut Your Stuffie Show.”

Rising Oakboro STEM sixth-grader Brennan Yow, left, collaborates with rising Locust sixth-grader C. J. Blackman during the “Catching Air” station at Camp Invention. (Photo by JO GREY)

The “Catching Air” unit provided each camper with a miniature skateboard, a finger shoe and a Slug Rider — a sticky garden slug look-alike. By designing a DIY rider and a mini-skatepark, campers learned something about the science of skateboarding. Everyday objects and recyclables fostered innovation and creative opportunities to think outside the box.

Two other themed units introduced STEM concepts in unexpected ways. With “Invention Celebration,” students explored elements like color psychology as they designed party props. They also learned about copyrights when they composed a song, and about the science of sound by building an African thumb piano called a kalimba.

Rising Oakboro STEM first-grader Lawson Smith works on “Fluffy” — his MimicBot — during Camp Invention. (Photo by JO GREY)

“Pop-Up Venture” encouraged the budding entrepreneurs’ imaginations as well as consideration of the customer.

“They came up with grand ideas,” said Ashley Wilkinson, digital media facilitator at OCSS, “but then they had to ask, ‘How can I build it?’ ”

Olivia Allred, a Mt. Pleasant Elementary fourth grader, said, “I wanted a lemonade stand for a long time, but the road where I live doesn’t have enough traffic.”

Because of that real world experience, she imagined a symbiotic business venture combining a lemonade stand with a dog-training business.

“Customer needs dictate invention,” said Wilkinson.

Crawford and the Camp Invention staff believe in the work and purpose of the STEM activities and are thinking ahead.

“This is my jam,” said Wilkinson, who’s already got next year’s dates on her calendar.

Families are encouraged to mark down July 15-18, 2024, and to sign up online to receive further notifications. The school’s Facebook page also has information. The community can support this effort through sponsorship and donations to help fund camp scholarships for a broader reach into the community.