Director Blog

Where I’m Sitting

Today I’m enjoying a day off from camp at the Beam Center in Brooklyn.

From where I sit I can see fifteen 6-11 year-olds working on Kinetic Conception, a mechanical building project designed by Brett Van Aalsburg. The kids are working with wood measuring, cutting priming and screwing. They are observing Brett as he cuts and welds steel. They are being guided by program director Kathryn (2 summer counselor, 3 summer assistant camp director), our master lead-learner Allen (3 summer counselor, 2 summer Domain Specialist), and five high schoolers: three former Beam campers, Misha (7 summers), Tore (5 summers), Nova (1 summer), and Cyrena and Elizabeth, who run track with my daughter Pearl, who is dividing her time at camp as a camper and dishwasher.

As I sit in Brooklyn, there are eighty-two 8-17 year old campers at Beam Camp in New Hampshire. In the mornings at camp they are building a 12-foot high tea kettle, a 7-foot diameter F-150 tire and two 9-foot sneakers in the forest designed by The Giant Robots sculpture collective. They are being led in the Project by Danny, Matt (7 summers), Andrew (2 summers), my son Dexter (8 summers), seven teenage Leadership Fellows and a crew of sixteen counselors comprised of graduate architecture students, a composer, educators, a cruise ship entertainer, fabricators and artists of many stripes. In the afternoon this week, the campers are working on analog synths, industrial design, the future of food, opera singing, digital music sampling, cartooning, printmaking, art shelters, a bartering vending machine and a lot more cool stuff with Domain Guests Tom Van Buskirk, Emilie Baltz, Tim Macken, Josh Saranitis, A.J. Almaguer and Rachel Cohn. The camp is being run by a senior staff comprised of Cassie (8 summers), Jeremy (3 summers), Bryan (2 summers), Zena, my daughter Bess (8 summers) and my mother Sally (80 summers).

South of where I’m sitting, in Rockaway, twenty kids are aesthetically investigating the concept of environment at Arts In Parts‘ day program. Beam Center fiscally sponsors Arts In Parts, which is run by former Beam Camp staffers Heather (4 summers), Diwa (1 summer) and Amanda (3 summers) along with Cecillia, Chris and Marymichael.

Today, as I sit and write there are 118 kids and 47 adults sharing, building, and working together to make things happen.


Our giant tea cup runneth over.


New Programs for 2013

We write today to announce two exciting and important enhancements to the Beam Camp experience: The Beam Project Fellows program for 16 and 17 year old campers and Design & Develop @ 535.

The planning for the two new programs are a collaboration with a crew of people who have spent many years living and co-creating what a camper-parent recently called the Beam Ethos.

Matt Robinson (who returns to camp full-time this summer in his new role as Director of Building and Fellows Program), Cassie Foote-Broadus (Staff Director), Kathryn Wallem (Assistant Camp Director), Jeremy Hawkins (Program Director), and Andrew Brehm (Project/Shop Director) have between them over 20 years of Beaming.

We are awed, and honored that such people of quality (the list is long) continue to take possession of, contribute to, argue about, shape, be influenced by, and enjoy this Beam idea.

Beam Leadership Fellows: for campers aged 15+

The Fellows program recognizes the growth that campers experience as they mature into young adults by rewarding them with the opportunity to take a more active role in our camp’s mission. We want Beam Fellows to occupy a special space at our camp. From their arrival at camp, Beam Fellows are specially trained to play an integral role in the realization of the project; they’ll go deeper into the management and building skills required to make the project and take leadership roles in the Waves. Additionally, Fellows assist in documenting and publicizing the project for the larger camp community and beyond.

Beam Fellows are asked to take on a leadership role at camp. They act as role models to younger campers, and they will take on additional responsibilities at camp including managing one full camp meal per week and acting as liaisons for our Domain Guests.

Throughout the camp session, Fellows learn strategies for self-reflection and goal-setting that will prove invaluable to them as they leave high school. Through weekly self assessments, group discussions, and meetings with the Director of Building, Fellows develop personal goals for the session, evaluate their progress on a regular basis, and learn to critique themselves and others constructively.

Each Fellow will produce a portfolio detailing and documenting their personal and group achievements as a capstone and record of their work. Campers 16 and 17 may enroll as Fellows in either camp session.

Design & Develop @ 535

535 is a time at camp where campers and staff initiate personal or group projects of their own; building with Lego in the Beambrary, chilling with a book on a favorite rock, making a movie, a chair or planning a Viking Attack.

Increasingly campers want to produce finished pieces or projects of their own invention using the woodshop, art studio or other camp resources. In response to this wonderful impulse, we are establishing a guided invention program within 535. Interested campers will partner with a staff member to work through the process of developing their ideas from design to completion. Leading this ambitious new venture will be Project Director Andrew Brehm in collaboration with two new Beam Staffers, Zena Pesta and David Thonis.

We look forward to sharing more about these new initiatives (especially their results!). In the meantime, call or write with questions.

What I learned at FabLearn 2012

You can chart the arc of my working life by the kind and content of conferences I’ve attended. There have been a lot of them. Some have been memorable, most have been tolerable and very few have changed my mind and helped set my course. FabLearn last week at Stanford, I’m delighted to say, is in the latter category.

It is hard to compete memory-wise with the 1991 WEA meeting which was held at the Universal Sheraton concurrently with the AVN Awards, the Adult Entertainment Industry’s annual celebration of their best and brightest. For me, the predominant take-away from that event was the power of public live adult entertainment (in this case in the hotel lobby bar) to bring humility and silence to even the most jaded, self-aggrandizing and pathologically loquacious people.

Eleven years later I found a tribe of liked minded zealots of another kind at the American Camp Association’s Tri-State conference at the New York Hilton. Scooting across 6th Avenue from my office on “a long lunch, ” I began to understand what it would take to make my long-held camp dream happen: stop obsessing about physical considerations like where camp would be and the size of its lake, and start obsessing about how Beam could blow kids’ minds (in a good way) like mine was at Lighthouse in the beautiful and woefully under-appreciated late-Seventies.

Which brings me back, conveniently, to Beam Camp’s participation and my enlightenment last week at FabLearn. Ostensibly this was to be a conference about the efficacy and challenges of putting Fab Labs in schools. If I had an opinion about Fab Labs or “technology in the schools” prior to last week, it was at best ambivalent and at worst hostile. Seeing my kids learn PowerPoint in school under the banner of technology education left me sad and unresolved. Yes, of course, it’s important that they learn some of the tools of the workplace, but damn, do Microsoft and Apple have to dominate EVERY MOMENT OF OUR LIVES even during the school day? And 3D printing. Yeah, yeah, it’s cool. Makerbots in every house so we can make our own wax dinosaurs instead of having buy to them at the LaBrea Tar Pits (or wherever we got the one that’s collecting dust upstairs).

So why were we there at all? Beam Camp does digital 3D fabrication only in the sense that we make big things in the physical world with our hands! Well, the better part of wisdom, I’m learning, is letting younger and smarter people who see what you can’t and think what you can’t be bothered to, lead the way to your own learning. AJ Almaguer, Project Specialist and Counselor from last summer (and hopefully many more!) emailed me shortly after the summer to say he had partially completed the submission form to be a presenter at the conference and would I just complete question #5. We figured we’d sneak in under cover of what appeared to be the event’s sidebar interest in “hands-on learning.”

I’m realizing now that this can and should be a multi-part or much longer post, so let me summarize for now. I learned two, no three, things at the conference.

The third is that when you participate in a public panel discussion you always have to start with a joke to slow your own heart-rate. I didn’t and almost hyper-ventilated (or as AJ commented, “pulled an Obama”).

The first is that Beam Camp’s kind of content-rich, aesthetics-driven, collaborative culture of doing is PRECISELY what kids and teachers need to be engaged, excited and passionate about learning. In other words, I was proud of what we’re building. And I don’t just mean Danny and me. I mean the staff, guests, Project Masters, parents and kids who every summer have the guts to take the leap off a new cliff to see what we find on the way down and whether we can figure out how to defy gravity (and the culture of buying, but that’s another post).

The second and most critical is that I finally understand the role “technology” or more accurately “computation” can and should play in education. Turns out I too was being mesmerized and distracted by Microsoft and Apple. Conference speaker Gary Stager taught me about Seymour Papert and the Logo programming language. He showed me how playing with computation, as opposed to memorizing the menu names in Word, can inspire a kid’s imagination and be central to learning of not only math and science, but social studies, language and anywhere else a teacher is bold enough to let it roam. Mike Eisenberg opened my eyes to how early we are in the development of 3D printing, comparing it to the Apple II stage of computer evolution. Now is the time to dream up how this new tool can be used by kids and teachers to educate and expand minds before it becomes primarily yet another vehicle of entertainment and distraction.

I learned much more that I’m still processing. From Edith Ackermann, Paulo Blikstein and the educators, inventors and thinkers who are looking for real, sometimes messy answers, not merely consensus about how to blow kids’ minds (in a good way).

More soon.


New York Times on Inventgenuity

Thanks to Laurel Graeber of the Times for perfectly capturing the spirit of Inventgenuity in last Friday’s preview. And especially for coining the phrase “But this isn’t juvenile delinquency. It’s Inventgenuity.” Read it all here.

The Way They Were

If you’ve ever taken a look at Beam’s Philosophy page or been caught in a corner (sorry about that!) while I talked about camp, you’ll know that Beam Camp (and between a third and a half of my brain) was shaped by my mid-70s experiences as a camper at Lighthouse Music and Arts Camp of Pine Grove, PA.

I went to Lighthouse to learn how to play jazz on my saxophone. I got some world-class instruction from people like Hankus Netsky and Ed Jackson. But it wasn’t what they and the other adults at camp taught me or did for me that ended up making a critical impact. It was they way they were; their way of being.

The way Ed loved playing “Hard Times”, the way Gene Minor managed a concert band rehearsal (and his impatience), the way Hankus walked through camp and walked back through camp upon realizing what he forgot in the Eagle’s Coop, the way Don Hamilton did his straight-faced sex and drugs speech, the way Rob Howard so eagerly and gleefully anticipated his days off by singing the Commodores’ “Easy,” the way Larry Loebell shouted above his laryngitis to get hundreds of kids to reverse direction or volume, the way Lois Hamilton and Annette Fluhr made a torrentially rainy final performance day come off like nothing but sunshine, the way they talked to me as the second tenor player rather than the geeky (and perhaps sometimes distracted) 13-year old.

It’s possible that my counselors, a tuba player, a lead trumpet player and a trombone player, didn’t always like us, but they never held back on sharing their love with us. I tremble with awe, respect and gratitude for all of them still.