WEST HARTFORD — Ah, those summer days that conjure up lazy images of lounging on the beach, swinging in a hammock and binge-watching Netflix. But for one Kingswood Oxford student, the summer also included running a one-week engineering camp in her local town of Plainville for 20 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from June 24 through June 28. Ella Schwartz ’20 conceived, executed and funded the tuition-free camp through Kingswood Oxford’s Jaime Garfield ’00 Grant which supports student endeavors related to community service.
Last summer while driving home from visiting colleges, Schwartz began thinking of her journey to Kingswood Oxford. While she was a middle school student in Plainville, she was active in the school's robotics program and wanted to give back to her community. Schwartz developed the idea of the camp, presented it to the Plainville superintendent of schools who greenlighted the project. She then applied for the grant through KO which paid for building materials and t-shirts which sported the line “I build robots. What’s your superpower?”
Schwartz ran the seven-hour program with her mother, a faculty advisor for the town’s robotics team, three junior counselors from the middle school team and KO student Michael Doyle ’20. Admittedly, there was some degree of chaos, but Schwartz remarked that the camp was intentionally designed for students to work through challenges. “The point is not necessarily for the design to be successful. We gave minimal instruction so that the students needed to struggle and learn how to be a positive community member,” Schwartz said.
One engineering challenge included building the highest tower in 18 minutes using only 15 pieces of spaghetti and one meter of tape to allow one standard marshmallow to sit aloft. In another exercise, the students constructed a chair using newspapers and tape on which they could sit. The campers also built robots using the Vex IQ program — a program they compete with in their divisions. “We didn’t want the students to be frustrated and at their wits' end. We wanted them to work with known and unknown facts and see if they could solve some of the unknowns.”
“I enjoyed seeing the growth of the students. The first challenge was really difficult, and one table stopped building because they were so overwhelmed. I tried to talk them through it so they could have more constructive conversations. Towards the end of the week, you would overhear their discussions with one another. ``I like that idea, but here’s another way we can solve it.’ We had a lot of fun, and I saw a lot of change in them in just one week,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz doesn't plan on taking it easy any time soon. She will attend a one-week engineering camp at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign to study material science engineering, a combination of chemistry and physics, that delves into understanding the atomic level of materials. “This camp will help me confirm if this is something that I want to pursue.” For Ella, summer is the season for exploration and following her heart.