Beam Camp: A haven for makers

Brian Cohen is co-director of Beam Camp, a residential summer camp that meets for four weeks each summer in New Hampshire. Beam Campers hone their maker skills with hands-on, minds-on activities throughout the day. The campers’ time is organized through a collection of domains, and each summer there’s a large-scale Beam Project that involves everyone in actively thinking and building around the themes of the project.

Read on for an interview with Brian about Beam Camp and its place in the maker community.


MAKE: Why should people learn about making?
There’s at least two ways to understand this question. The sense in which I’m guessing you mean it is “why is making so important for people (kids) to know?” The other, which is perhaps even more important to us, is “why is the process of learning making meaningful for kids?” My answer addresses both senses, so I thought it’d be useful to make the distinction.

Everything we do at Beam is directed towards enabling campers and staff to make ideas happen. Our aim is help kids explore how the skill and process of making things can be applied to all of life, not just strictly objects of art. Making, for us, is where art, work, technology, utility, resource management, communication and collaboration intersect. We see making as a pathway to being intentional about how you live, who you are, and what you bring to the world.

First, the “knowing” part:
When you make a thing, you have to observe and participate in its progress of becoming in a very clear-eyed way. You might be able to convince yourself that it’s finished, but if it doesn’t work the way you want it to, there’s no getting around the necessity of having to take it apart and refine your process, tools, and plan.

Knowing how to use tools, how something works, how to finish something, we feel, is complimentary and contributes to the formation of a healthy, reflective social, and individual identity.

Cultivating the practices of making — a capacity for objectivity, a willingness to fail and persevere, adaptability for new materials, conditions and techniques, a commitment to completion — all improve your chances of being able to recognize contentment, foster authentic relationships, and maintain a sense of honest self-assessment. Not to say that all makers necessarily have such an unveiled insight into themselves, but learning these kinds of skills as a child, we think, exponentially improves your chances of enjoying their benefits throughout life.

Second, the “learning” part:
When a kid learns about making, they get to feel up close the warmth of the teacher’s commitment to the craft and their passion for sharing it. They get to see how much the teacher values what they do and the things they make. Although we very much want kids to walk away from camp with skills and techniques, our primary objective is that they retain the memory of their teacher’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and caring.

We want kids to appreciate the value of things for the resources and human ingenuity, effort, and care that went into their making. We believe that learning what goes into the making of an object or system inspires kids to set their goals higher with a more realistic sense of what it takes to achieve those goals. We want kids to aspire not to winning the game, but to inventing the game. We want kids to put a premium on reciprocal relationships, not just playing Farmville with friends or posting on their Facebook wall.

Kids invest so much of their downtime at home using technology as toys, or consuming entertainment disguised as communication or information. Point-and-click perfection, hero worship, and instant gratification have their place, well actually they have every place, but as Dean Kamen says, “you get what you celebrate.” We choose to celebrate a culture of constructive creation, or as I often say, “getting s#%t done.”


What is the benefit of people making together?
The quick answer is that the most awesome achievements require a skillful crew sharing specialties, encouragement and collective strength.

One of our primary motivations for designing Beam around our Beam Project is to give kids the experience of making something physically and conceptually spectacular. They do plenty of “group projects” in school and they certainly get to “work in groups,” but infrequently do they spend a concentrated period of time working side-by-side with tools to accomplish a complex plan. The Beam Project is not only our way of introducing kids to the people (makers, artists, architects, etc.) who make a life out of their big ideas, but our way of having the kids walk around inside those people’s minds while they work together to bring their big idea to life.

We agree with Richard Sennett, who writes in The Craftsman,”The craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others.” So, for Beam, the “making” part shares prominence with the “together” part. Not only together with people you’re comfortable with, but also together with people who are not of your choosing.

Our campers get ample opportunity to collaborate with their friends, but when forming our Waves (Project Teams) for the Beam Project, we intentionally mix girls and boys of various ages, who might not necessarily choose to work with one another. The Wave can only succeed, and enjoy the three hours of each day they spend together, if its members forge ways to communicate and solve problems that are based not merely on familiarity, but on a sense of shared mission and an exchange of ideas and techniques. It’s where campers workout how to listen, lead, compromise, convince, and bounce back from frustration.

What happens when older and younger people get together and work on a meaningful project?
A couple aspects to this one as well. There’s the relationship between the teacher and learner that I addressed earlier, but also, the magic that happens between older and younger campers.

We celebrate and encourage mentorship at Beam. At school, kids of different ages may pass each other in the hallway, but they rarely get to engage in a project together. At Beam, campers of all ages work together every morning on the Project and often learn together in the afternoon Domains. Our Junior Campers (7-9 years-old) get to contribute to the Project on equal footing with the older campers, not based on age, but capability. What we see happening, as a result, is both age groups rising to the occasion. The Juniors focus more intently on the job at hand looking to earn respect for their efforts and the older campers modeling the best of what they’ve seen in their parents, teachers, and counselors, offering advice, praise and sometimes, even more importantly, distraction when the work gets frustrating.

Having said that, we have some incredibly bright, focused, and capable eight and nine year-olds at Beam. So it’s not uncommon for one of them to explain a concept or procedure to someone four or five years older than they.


What have people from your program gone on to do later in life?
2010 will be Beam’s sixth summer. Though we haven’t been around long enough to have graduated any Intel, Nobel, or Pulitzer prize-winners, we often hear from parents that their kids have brought a new focus, maturity, and willingness to work into the school year. We especially love the stories of once passive kids being the first to grab the tool box to put together new furniture or the frequent cries of “we did that at Beam!”

One quick anecdote. In 2007, our Beam Project was designed by Caitlin Berrigan whose work often centers around demystifying and eliminating fear from discussions of illness and disease. Her Beam Project was to build five geodesic domes and use various sculptural media to fashion them into virus protein shells. After camp, we heard from a parent that during a school discussion her third grader volunteered, “I ate lunch in HIV at Beam this summer!” Mission accomplished.

The domes also became the basis of Caitlin’s show at RPI later that year.

We are extremely proud that Beam has served as an incubator for what counselors and visiting teaching artists have taken out into the world.

A couple other examples:

The work of the Fixers Collective evolved directly out of the Repairo Domain that David Mahfouda taught in 2008. Campers in the Repairo Domain would respond to requests to fix broken things around the camp: punctured window screens, jammed locks, uneven benches, etc. David would guide them through the process of assessment, problem-solving, and execution. It was miraculous, and of course, for me as a camp director, a time and money saving blessing.

In 2007, Dan Rollman came to camp to help kids set their own individual and group World Records. His work with the kids to develop and document their records-served evolved into The Universal Record Database and we continue to collaborate with for Beam events during the school year.


How has your program evolved over time?
When we started planning what would become Beam Camp, my Co-Director, Danny Kahn, and I were neither camp owners, nor “makers,” nor educators (Oy, what an Instructable we could write!). We essentially had to learn to make our idea happen, before we could hope to help anyone make theirs happen.

We spent about a year developing Beam’s core values and program features. In April 2005, we somewhat impulsively decided to run a pilot program that summer at a rented facility. We asked our friend and frequent collaborator, Fabian Jabro of Standard Architects, to come up with our first Beam Project, scrambled to find some willing young makers to be counselors and cajoled parents I knew in Brooklyn to bring 28 kids up to New Hampshire for 10 days of building and fun. We’re pleased that many of the staff members and campers from that first session are still with us.

Since then, we’ve established our own facility in Strafford, NH on the grounds of a former Boy Scout camp where we’ve renovated old buildings and built nine new ones (our older campers will be collaborating with our local contractor and uber-maker Chip Belyea to build a tenth building this summer). We have capacity for 100 campers and we’re continually broadening our network of relationships with artists, makers and big thinkers through our counselor outreach, Beam Project and Domain Guest RFPs.

Each summer, we seek to incorporate a new category of making into our repertoire. In 2009 we made a concerted effort to find Domain Guests who liked to work with electricity. We were fortunate to find Christian Cerrito and Mike Rosenthal who had recently graduated from NYU-ITP who made Solar Bots and Will Macfarlane who made flash lights and various simple circuited gadgets with the campers.

We’ve also evolved our method of soliciting proposals for our Beam Projects. In our first two summers, we drew proposals from our local circle of friends and acquaintances. Now we put out a public call for ideas. In looking for our 2009 project, we received over fifty proposals from artists, architects, and makers all over the world. We chose a proposal from Christine Baumgartner and Manuel Kretzer, architects from Germany, who were working in Toronto at the time. The solicitation process also helped us initiate relationships with makers near and far with whom we collaborated last summer or hope to in the near future.

Most importantly, Danny and I consider ourselves the leading beneficiaries of the same learning experiences we want to provide for campers. Beam is our Big Project. With each new Beam Project, we have to learn whole new sets of vocabulary and skills while continually fixing and improving the mechanics of running a camp. To say it’s humbling would be an extreme understatement, but it does give us first hand appreciation for how awesome the experience of learning can be.


What do the parents like most about the program?
From the parents of campers who have been at Beam, we hear that their kids have become more confident in advocating for themselves and more eager to participate or lead projects and home or in school. Parents love Beam’s big project orientation and the sense of accomplishment it gives the kids. I think a lot of parents, especially those whose kids attend city schools, feel that their kids are missing out on opportunities for hands-on making that we provide.

If you could do anything in your program, what would it be?
We have a long list. Some excerpts:
1) Collaborate with a wider and more varied list of engineering and making professionals. People who make big things and solve big problems for a living.
2) Inspiring and enabling Beam campers to initiate projects to benefit their home communities.
3) The Beam afterschool program that apprentices kids to makers and tradespeople in their communities.
4) The Beam School where the curriculum is built around one or several big student-led projects.

Your Beam Projects are planned out more than a year in advance. How did that level of preparation come about and how does it affect the project itself?
We approach the Beam Project like a developer would a large building project; we need time to do our own version of choosing the right location, design, builder, establishing the budget, raising capital, etc.

We’re looking for Big Ideas that have never been done before and are not expressly intended to be built by kids. So we have to first identify a project we think is great, the designer then has to figure out how it can actually be built and then we have to work with the designer to figure out how it can actually be built by kids. This year we’ve found that prospective new parents and campers are very excited to be able to talk to about the coming summer’s project, so that too adds to our need to plan far in advance.

I should also add as in all things we’ve done we’ve learned how to do it the better way by doing it the wrong way. We’ve proved to ourselves that putting together a huge project in eight weeks to be built by kids involving truck loads of wood, complex plans, tools you don’t yet own, and counselors not yet hired is possible, but we’re pretty damned sure it’s not optimal.

For Beam Beam Project 2010, in collaboration with video artist Daniela Kostova and film writer/director Mike De Seve, we’ll tell the story of a journey to the sun – powered by the sun: a science fiction film with emphasis on the science, with special effects, sets, lighting, costuming, acting, and blue-screen work.

One century after the first science fiction movie, George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, was projected in theaters, Beam Camp makes history with a fully solar-powered remake, A Trip to the Sun, a classic re-imagined for our changing planet.

What does solar power have to do with movie making? Everything. Before the invention a few decades ago of powerful movie lights, there was only one way to make movies: bright sunlight. All interiors and exterior sets had to be built outdoors and lit entirely by the sun. The earliest American studios, set in the Northeast, all worked this way. And when demand for movies exploded early in the century, the pioneers of the “biz” trekked west where there was enough solar power to meet the demand. The result? Hollywood, California.

Now America is rethinking its energy use like never before. What better time to re-examine the key technology that launched the movies, and see if we on the East Coast can’t give those West Coast upstarts a run for their money – and do it green to boot?

A Trip to the Sun will use solar power for almost every single part of making and showing the movie. A blue screen shooting stage will be lit entirely by the sun – built on a rotating platform that lets it turn to follow the sun’s journey across the sky.


How do you use Make Magazine and/or in your program and in your offseason pursuits?

I think I became aware of MAKE around Volume 04. Discovering it was like hearing a thunderous voice from on high saying “mere mortal, you are going in the right direction” and equally inspiring and intimidating. It introduced us to the Dorkbot and maker communities from which have and continue to draw Domain Guests and collaborators.

MAKE magazine serves as an inspiration to us for ideas and a roadmap for people we should get to know. We keep a full set on hand at camp as reference for campers and staff. What goes on inside MAKE is awesome, the makers described therein are like super heroes with special powers. As I said before, Danny and I may have made a camp about making, but we are not makers ourselves. It is our hope and aspiration to bring these super heroes and the things they do into direct contact with kids and we believe that what goes on between them will be of great benefit to both. The kids will grow smarter and more capable and the super heroes will find broader applications for their powers.

What do your program participants do in the offseason?
We’ve experimented with different ways of bringing the Beam ethos into the off season. From holiday oriented workshops to last year’s Brooklyn Kids World Record Day. This year we’ve launched the Brooklyn Inventgenuity Festival. I guess it’s like our own little Maker Faire. We’re invited kids and their parents to be part of a weekend where we’ll build a mini-Beam Project and work on Domains from hydroponic farming to art bots to pupusa-making to world record-setting.


You can find out more about Beam Camp through their website, and their Flickr stream has lots of photos showing life at camp, their Youtube account shows some neat video of the camp, or check out the proposal process for the Beam Project.



Making things is the best way to learn about our world.

View more articles by Chris Connors