Lights flashed, power drills whirred and plastic golf balls flew as nearly seven dozen students rushed through a packed ballroom at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Southwest Portland.

The West Sylvan Middle School seventh-graders were running tests on their handmade cardboard arcade games and using soldering equipment and sewing machines to touch up the final details before debuting their creations later in the afternoon.

The April 27 program was one of 10 “Maker Experiences” made available to seventh-graders across the Portland Public Schools district starting this year.

Jeanne Yerkovich, senior program manager for the district’s Career & Technical Education program, said the three-day learning experiences offered hands-on learning opportunities and real-life applications for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

“We’re trying to provide opportunities to our kids that we currently don’t offer in all of our schools,” she said. “We hope it might spark an interest — maybe it’s engineering, maybe it’s innovation.”

Working in small teams, the students had about nine hours to come up with an arcade game using materials provided by Tinker Camp, a hands-on educational camp selected by the district to provide this particular Maker Experience program.

Down the hall from the arcade activity, about 20 students from Peninsula School were learning to write code with the help of instructors from Pixel Arts Game Education. The students were using Scratch, an online coding tool created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Pixel Arts assistant coordinator Haley Biondi said instructors told students to make their game about anything they want — they could even create their own art to use in their game.

“We really like to encourage them to think big, think creative,” she said.

STEM thinking

Before taking part in the Tinker Camp program, many students had never worked with soldering or circuit materials, run a sewing machine or even used a power drill. The camp provided the tools, along with instructors to guide the students, but it also allowed space for students to figure the materials out on their own if they chose to do so.

Tinker Camp co-founder and executive director Blake Swensen said he and his team set out to provide more opportunities for students to discover what he calls “the essential mindsets for STEM.”

“Tenacity, courage, curiosity,” he said. “Those things that are spawned by creativity in the classroom.”

To encourage creativity, he sets students up with a fictional scenario and an objective. In this case, he told students, they were part of a business that was about to lose its building, and the only way to keep the building was to offer an arcade.

Students then came up with their own games — ball tosses, coin drops and even a racetrack with handmade cars — and worked together to design, build, decorate and troubleshoot their structures.

Swensen said he’d watched the students build, test and change their structures over and over throughout the project — and that’s the idea, he said. Tinker Camp’s slogan is “Try. Learn. Try Again.”

In the hours leading up to the arcade’s debut — when students would take turns playing and testing out each other’s games — a group of girls huddled around their coin-drop game. They were creating a structure with a slot at the top, where a player could drop in a coin and watch it slide down a stretch of cardboard, bouncing off of screws along the way, into one of several cardboard cups at the bottom. The player’s points would be determined by which cup their coin fell into.

The girls had figured out how to power lights to decorate their game and had rigged up a support system to keep their structure from falling over. They were continually grabbing a power drill to adjust the screws on the cardboard slide to make sure the game would work the way they hoped.

Mei Xu, a seventh-grader at West Sylvan, said the project helped her learn about how to work together and share ideas with a team. And while she’d never used a power drill before, she was wielding one easily as she touched up the game — even though she couldn’t explain exactly how she learned.

“I saw people use it, and I was like, OK,” she said.

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