Friday, November 13, 2009

Planet Zak

I only remember how much I liked this story after I was done with it. I was glad to see it held up to the memory.

Published July 9, 2004, in the Keizertimes

Planet Zak is a desolate one and, unfortunately, five Salem-Keizer School District students have just crash-landed on it.

It has only three seasons - Zinter, Zpring and Zummer - and vegetation is sparse.

"There was only popcorn to eat, and it was dry and not buttery," said Harritt Elementary School student Elliot Anderson. "I would have liked at least a little butter."

Elliot and four other students had to find ways to survive the harsh conditions of Planet Zak and find a way off the barren rock and back to Earth in just five days as part of the district's first-ever Camp Invention.

Camp Invention, a summer day camp that made its local debut last month, gives kids the chance to solve problems in role-playing situations such as being stuck on a different planet, becoming stranded on a desert island or even engineering the next generation of automobile safety equipment. It was held at Keizer Elementary School.

In the Planet Zak scenario, students had the five days of the camp, approximately an hour each day, to learn to survive and even thrive in a strange environment. The goal, ultimately, was to construct a spaceship to carry them safely home.

"We've had to test our designs, though," said Jonathan Thorpe, a Cummings Elementary School grad who will attend Claggett Creek Middle School this fall.

"We did one earlier where we put a balloon in a bag and it had to move in a straight line on a piece of string, but ours kept looping around."

Everything at Camp Invention is completed with the rawest of materials, and the tasks are no small chores. On Planet Zak, one team constructed a floating dock to cross a swamp for food.

"On the island, we have to make our own chalk to write SOS," said Kai Carr of Englewood Elementary School.

In addition to problem-solving, the students must also learn to work as a team. Each day on Planet Zak, students rotate through the roles in the scenario, choosing from commander, navigator, shipmate, doctor and mechanic.

For Stacey Lund, a Hayesville Elementary School teacher who advises and teaches in the Planet Zak scenario, teamwork is the element she stresses the most.

"I want to be sure that the kids are opening themselves to new ideas and piggybacking on the ideas of others," said Lund. "It's rare that they get to work in such a hands-on environment, but you can tell they take pride in showing their strengths."

While the camp brings out the best in all of the kids in attendance, its demographics are a glaring illustration of the priorities already instilled in children at a young age.

Of the 58 campers who attended the Keizer session, eight were girls. The gender split was reportedly more equal for a session held recently at Swegle Elementary School.

"Some of the girls like to work with each other, but there are others who are confident enough in their skills that they'll pair up with a boy without batting an eye," said Stacy Cogar, a teacher at Keizer Elementary.

The approach taken by boys and girls differed in some tasks, as seen in the projects produced by Cogar's students. In her class, campers had to devise safety mechanisms for makeshift cars that would protect an egg upon impact.

"It was really funny to watch some of them because they would just wrap it in duct tape to protect the egg. I had to stop them and ask if they would do that to a baby," she said.

The camp even offered its own version of free time for the campers.

At the beginning of the week each student brought in a mechanical object, resulting in an array of toasters, old computers, printers and discarded fax machines strewn across the floor of Keizer Elementary's commons area.

The students first "deconstructed" the object they brought in and then created a new invention with parts from other campers' castoffs.

For Cummings fifth-grader B.J. Hirsch, both tasks seemed equally engaging.

"I'm trying to make a light box out of an old computer frame because I think it will look cool to see the lights shine out of the holes when it's covered," he said.

B.J. said he enjoys building things so the camp seemed like a natural fit.

The district's Talented and Gifted program presented the program this year, but it was open the any student with an interest in science. According to Lund, there is definite interest in bringing it back next year.

She said that the camp was more than she could have hoped.

"We have so many eager young minds in one place, and it is a powerful thing to watch them come together around ideas," she said.

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