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NREL Supports Popular Kinetic Sculpture Camp, STEM Education

NREL’s Giving Program Helps Campers Experience Intersection of Art and Science

June 19, 2019

Photo of a group of children sitting on a brick patio and holding small sculptures.

The variety in the completed products is one thing that makes this summer camp stand out. Photo by Josh Bauer, NREL 

What do a peacock that can twirl its tail, a machine that flings objects on its own, and a lawnmower have in common? They’re all examples of what campers created this year at a kinetic sculpture camp in Golden, Colorado. NREL partnered with the Foothills Art Center to provide supplies for the camp, which was attended by children ages 7–12.

Building from the success of last year’s camp, which NREL also supported, this year’s kinetic sculpture program was the most popular of the 15 camps offered this summer by the Foothills Art Center, a nonprofit art gallery in downtown Golden. NREL provided funding for the center to purchase the solar panels, gears, and battery packs that campers combined with other art supplies to create unique moving sculptures under the guidance of Art Teacher Mike Carroll.

Unlike Any Other Art Camp

“It’s a totally different flavor,” Carroll said. “They dig it for sure.”

On the first day of the program, Carroll gave the campers a lesson on solar energy and kinetic sculptures before setting them free to create any kinetic sculpture they could dream of.

One camper, who has been participating in the kinetic sculpture program for years, always incorporates penguins into her one-of-a-kind creations. This time around, she made a solar-powered car to transport penguins from place to place. Another camper expressed that she never knew cars could be art, and yet another designed a solar-powered lawnmower.

According to the parent of one camper, the NREL collaboration makes the kinetic sculpture program a can’t-miss camp for her child. She made sure to be online right when registration opened to make sure her daughter would have a spot in this year’s camp. “It’s a comfortable place for her to explore and use her mind, as well as use her hands,” she said.

Creativity in the Real World

Usually, according to Foothills Art Center Curator of Education Maura McInerney, if a camp is purely art-based it attracts mostly girls, and if it’s just about building a solar-powered car, it attracts mostly boys. The kinetic sculpture camp, however, has a record of appealing equally to both.

NREL is keenly aware that, while the number of students interested in pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers is increasing, many—particularly girls—are still losing interest in science before starting high school. That’s why the laboratory and its employees dedicate both time and resources to help foster the STEM workforce of the future through a variety of educational programs.

McInerney says the kinetic sculpture program gives campers a chance to connect their creativity to careers they could have in the future. “I wish that, when I was younger, I could have seen the connection to jobs and art in real time,” she said. “They see people from NREL use their creativity to do a job.”

Building Lasting Connections Through Art

Another thing that makes the program unique, McInerney said, is how it builds community relationships. High school students who used to attend the camp often volunteer to help, and teachers return year after year because of the chance to teach their specialties. NREL is becoming part of that close-knit network.

“NREL is really loved in the community,” McInerney said. “There’s no way we could provide the solar panels and gears for this week without NREL support.”

Who knew solar energy could spark so many connections?

Looking for other ways NREL is having a positive impact on our community? Check out the laboratory’s STEM programs for students and other community outreach efforts.