Oakland Public Library’s Melrose Branch is a gorgeous, historic building a couple blocks off High Street in the geographic center of the city. With a kid focus, a great collection of reading materials, and a multi-use basement that includes a small stage for presentations, it’s an excellent spot for a Maker Camp affiliate site.

A group of us from Make went there to meet with volunteers from AT&T — Maker Camp’s lead supporter this year — and help out with an afternoon camp a few weeks ago, offering the assorted hands-on activities to the local youth as a summer activity. It was a wonderful outing, and at the end of the day, I suspected that the helpers had even more fun than the kids did.

I arrived to the location early, followed by AT&T volunteers from San Ramon, and right behind them, Sacramento. More AT&T staff from around the Bay Area showed up, and the group instantly began sharing stories and discussing their duties — cell-phone tower engineering, customer care, etc. Their jobs were as diverse as the group itself was, but the group had a common excitement and friendliness that was instantly contagious. Finally, with about eight helpers on hand, we sat down with Kate, the Melrose Branch librarian who’s also the camp coordinator for their site, and ran through the steps for putting together the projects we’d help build with the group of youngsters.

Affiliate sites can request a Maker Camp kit, made possible this year through Maker Media’s collaboration with AT&T Aspire, AT&T’s signature philanthropic initiative,. It’s a key part of what makes Maker Camp work so well. The collection includes kits, books, components, and more. We used pieces from those kits that day in Oakland to make light-up greeting cards using circuit sticker tape and LEDs, three-dimensional geometric creations using Strawbees, and “scribblebots” using motors, markers, and some simple found items.

The scribblebots really caught my attention as one of those great projects that can transform a young mind. The gist: turn a small berry basket upside-down, attach four magic-marker legs so it stands on the pen tips, then affix a small motor and battery pack on top. Push an eraser or cork onto the motor shaft, plug in the batteries, and watch the thing jiggle itself in a random pattern, drawing joyful multicolor art as it moves. Masking tape as the adhesive makes doing adjustments simple.

Scribblebots are great because they’re the type of easy project that gives simple but staying lessons about how electricity works, how to prototype simply, how to troubleshoot, and how everyday items can become key components for fanciful robots and more. And this extends beyond just the kids — two cousins and a volunteer stayed as long as they could to iterate on their robot (“What if we put TWO motors on it? That’d be awesome!”), despite the fact that camp had already ended and cleanup was almost over. And they were right — their two-motored scribble was pretty awesome.

The camp was noisy and pure fun, the time flying by for all of us. At the end, the parents came to retrieve their youngsters. One girl ran over to her dad and showed him her light-up card, explaining how folding the circuit so it would contact the battery would make the LED glow. That scene repeated with almost every family, which really moved all the grown-up helpers.

The summer is now over, but Maker Camp projects live on with after-school programs and more. The kits that AT&T helped us send are getting great use, and the campers are equipped with more knowledge, experience, and confidence to continue to do great things — and we want to say thanks to all involved for helping out and letting us share a great program with so many.

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