What gains do children make in curiosity, creativity and persistence over 100 hours? What age can you start?

To answer these questions, we ran a 100 hour-long summer camp – looking at nature from an engineer’s point of view. We opened the camp to a wide range of ages – all the way from 3-10. Each child was paired with an adult or a high school explainer.

The main barriers for the littlest ones were motor control and verbalization of ideas. The former was addressed by having the high school explainer or adult serve as the “hands”. Over time as the little ones got used to the environment and people, they became more comfortable with expressing their ideas and goals.

We based our curriculum on the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the core principles of successful games and motivation theory:

  • a sandbox to start and explore without fear of failure
  • showing the real world and exciting applications of learning (or “why” this is important)
  • providing “just-in-time” or “on demand” knowledge, encouraging students to learn as they build, instead of making them demonstrate expertise before they build.
  • giving each student choice and ownership of their learning. Students could apply their learning to design and build models of their own choosing.

Over the course of the 100-hour camp, students experienced the following progression of skills:

25-50 hours – Gaining Observation Skills, Familiarity with Materials, Asking questions that can be investigated

  1. Notice features, patterns, or contradictions in one’s world.

For instance, instead of differentiating birds on the basis of color, students started to notice differences in wing beat frequencies, wing tip shapes, types of beak etc.


  1. Ask questions about the phenomena being observed

Why is it that millipedes move slowly, but centipedes can move fast? Why do leaves on different plants and trees have different types of edges?

  1. Becoming familiar with materials and how they behave

We use very simple, low-cost materials to lower the cost of failure. It is not a very big problem if a child breaks a few popsicle sticks while trying an idea, but the same tolerance can’t be extended if the materials or equipment are very expensive or single-use only. With practice, students learn to predict how different materials behave under varying forces, and conditions such as temperature, light, pressure, or mediums such as air, water, and oil. The most direct application of this was when the students designed and built self-ventilating animal homes using mud, sticks, leaves and water.

  1. Learn to use instruments to measure variables

Students were exposed to a wide range of both simple and exotic measuring instruments – from humble rulers and magnifying glasses to microscopes and boroscopes.

  1. Develop an investigation plan

For instance, for the cardboard automaton week, we showed the students various videos of automatons to inspire them. After the videos, we worked on drawing our own designs. At first the students thought that the project was easy and came up with very elaborate designs. Once they started executing, they realized that they needed simpler designs — and went back to the drawing board.


A surprising finding was the value of kits such as “Snap Circuits”. These type of kits usually are not at all open-ended and dont give the learner any choice. However, they were valuable for the younger students to experience early success, reinforce learning and motivate them to explore using other materials (such as squishy circuits) to build designs of their own choice.

  1. Students use diagrams, maps,drawing, photographs, 3D models as tools to elaborate on and present their ideas

We invited a scientific illustrator and artist to teach the students about picking key features and representing them in 2D. Students learned to look at a bird and represent it as a few ovals of various sizes. 


50-100 hours Being able to apply the Engineering Design Process and gaining in persistence

The biggest learning gain for students at this level of practice was being able to say, “lets try again” when something didn’t work. Most students get very frustrated when their model doesn’t work on the first try. It takes repeated reinforcement of the message – “Its ok! Lets try again. Now what should we change this time to try and make it work?” to develop persistence.

  1. Make and use a model to test a design and to compare the effectiveness of different solutions

  2. Students persist through failing designs and models
  3. Students compare designs through repeated testing, troubleshooting, recording and analyzing results and finally identifying the best.

Students went through all stages of the engineering design process each day while exploring different questions regarding bird flight, beaks, animal locomotion, tree stability and structures etc.

  1. After repeated development and testing, students invent a totally new design based on the characteristics of the best design.

The summer camp provided 100 contact hours to students who came for the full 4 weeks.  Due to the young age and lack of similar, prior experiences, the students didn’t get to the Inventor stage. Based on the programs we run at our studios in NYC and LA, we have seen that it takes ~500-700 hours of practice for students to be completely familiar with observing, framing the right investigation questions and persisting through the engineering design process to get to the Inventor level.

How do you teach persistence?

We recently had a chance to do something pretty unusual – have the students work with kits (we usually have the students build/design their models from scratch with no prepared materials). We got the BP A+ for Energy Grant to do the Energy City Project with two 6th grade classrooms. We did a Family Science Course on Renewable Energy and a bunch of in-class sessions on wind turbines and then we bought some Powerhouse kits for students to mess around with. The kits are amazing and you can build a house with a wind turbine, a solar collector, an oil press, an electric car and motor amongst zillion other experiments. We photocopied all the directions for each experiment, separated the components into ziplock bags for each experiment and divided the students into pairs and small groups.
I was very curious to see how the students would react to the kits and having to decipher and follow instructions and troubleshoot on their own. We had two volunteering engineers Ralph Lewis and Tiago Wright help the students out.
I had anticipated that very few of the experiments would actually work as students generally lacked the essential troubleshooting confidence and experience. But what surprised me was how quickly and easily students gave up trying. They asked for help almost before they started to work on anything. We asked one of the classes to fill out some reflection questions on what they found difficult and how they thought an engineer would approach the problem. What was most surprising was that almost everyone knew the theoretical steps involved in troubleshooting, “read directions, look for mistakes, keep trying etc etc”, but only 10% of students actually put them into practice.
Some potential explanations are:

  1. The students we work with will probably never have had access to sophisticated kits, lego sets etc and thus lack the self-directed experience of following directions and troubleshooting. Overall these students just do not have enough experiences where they experience the tangible rewards of designing, building, testing and tinkering. That is our mission to provide these formative experiences to students, but the big question remains: “how many such experiences are needed before it is internalized into a student’s psyche?”
  2. This maybe a contentious explanation, but I almost think that students (and many teachers) are too quick to ask for help. Of course you want students to not struggle on their own futilely, but I almost think that we may have taken this a bit too far and now most students just lack the persistence to try things on their own. And this may explain why students know the theoretical steps to problem solving but are unable to actually solve any problems.

I think an education is complete and successful if you can teach a child to be persistent and curious. The child will develop these characteristics if her parents model/reinforce these for her. But in the absence of such role models, how do you impart these values?