Project Ember

Day 3: Battleship

Day 3: Battleship

Since sometime mid-day yesterday, everyone's been buzzing about what the big project reveal will yield. "Can't you tell us tonight before bed so we can think about it all night long?", we heard several times. We do quite like to create a little suspense and anticipation around the project reveal...

Day 2: Benches

morning mist

Not a bad view to wake up to every morning, now is it?  We're ready to get off and running for day two, as we've got a lot ground to cover.  Today will serve as Tool Training 101 for all our first time Project Ember campers, with some more advanced challenges for our veterans who've gone through ample trainings in their time. 

Anna shows her enthusiasm for our 7:30 wake-up...

...but it's nothing a case of the tiny hands can't fix.

Christopher lays out the basics of drill use.

Christopher lays out the basics of drill use.

First up for our first-time campers is Drills 101.  Along with the miter saw and the lumber itself, there are few things more essential to our build site than the drills.  Though the basic principle is familiar to most, we dive into the various hazards and how to prevent injury and errors as well as some tips for frustration-free use.  For example, if you don't secure the wood, it can suddenly spin and hurt you or your teammate.  We also emphasize the importance of picking the right screw for the job so that we never have weak joints from screws that were too short or sharp pointy bits ("Mr. Dangerous") from screws that were too long.  This is especially important in an environment where so many people are interacting with a project simultaneously.  Christopher also demonstrated how important it is to tie back your hair and clothes when using a drill.

Phoenix uses the weight of his body to drive the screw.

Sonia and Marvon secure their boards with a steady knee.


Meanwhile, the alumni each demonstrate proper use of the miter saw as a review before moving into their own drill training, though this time the roles are reversed.  We've challenged them to plan their own mini-lesson and teach the collaborators how it's done.  To scaffold their lessons, we let them know how we think about teaching a tool at Project Ember.

  1.  What is its utility?
  2.  What are the objective and subjective hazards of the tool and its operator?
  3.  Provide a strategy for minimizing each hazard. 

Hannah, Reid, Addison and Zeke brainstorm the important components of a drill lesson.

Alex explains why Victory Drilling (pumping the trigger when not drilling) is dangerous and to be avoided. 

Next up for Jonah, Marvon, Sonia and Phoenix is Miter Saw 101.  The miter saw is among the most powerful tools in regular use at Project Ember, but with a solid understanding of the hazards involved, it is also an incredibly safe tool.  Christopher emphasizes the ready call - the way we begin anything with significant risk at camp.  All campers within range verify with a thumbs up that not only are they ready with their safety gear on, but that they approve of the way the operator has set up the cut. They all use the tool methodically and skillfully. 

Hannah, Zeke, Reid and Addison play with placement for their tic-tac-toe jig.

Next up for the alumni is a lesson on jigs.  If we're working on a project that requires us to do the same thing over and over, a jig allows us to do so with accuracy and speed.  Most jigs are custom and therefore take both time to plan and build, which can pay off big time depending on the project.  Today our challenge is to come up with a jig that would allow us to produce 100 identical tic-tac-toe boards made out of 2x3.  Jigs can take many forms, and our two alumni groups come up with different strategies.  Often times, a solution can be putting blocks into the negative space of the design so that the pieces needing to be assembled fit around it like puzzle pieces.   Meanwhile, Josh covers a number of important building principles with Marvon, Jonah, Sonia and Phoenix through a mini-build project.  They make a triangular gusset, with help from a builder's best friend - the clamp.  If there's one thing to know about building robust structures, the triangle is probably it. 

That almost feels like a full day's worth of work, but that was just the first hour of the day!  On Mondays, we start with a mini-project to get a little more building under our belts before diving into the week's main project.  A oldie, but a goodie, we announce the mini-project - benches to sit around the fire pit for the rest of the week.  Jonah has built many a bench before, as have a few of the other experienced makers, but that provides us with a good opportunity to talk about the importance of revisiting challenges so that we can incorporate what we've learned and do it even better.  Plus, we still need a place to sit!

Bench groups are the same as small groups, and we quickly have three designs in motion.  Addison, Sophia, Zeke and Phoenix have come up with a woven design, hoping to have an extra comfy seat.  Anna, Reid, Sonia and Jonah also have relaxing in mind, and design a relatively standard bench, but add the flare of gentle rockers.  Jonah's also got a great idea for a foldable tea table on the side.  Our last group is thinking ambitiously with many variables.  The initial drawing includes a rocking swing like bench with a reclining back that can be completely flattened into a hanging futon.  What more perfect way to end the night than on a star-gazing bed you built yourself?  Alex, Marvon, Hannah and Liam assess if the lofty design will be possible in just one afternoon and get right to work. 

Looks like the rocker is definitely going to need a backrest.

The rest of the crew comes over to check out how the rocking benches feel.  

Meanwhile, Christopher's team is plenty busy stringing their paracord back and forth and pulling it taught as can be so that it doesn't sag too much over time.  Below Phoenix ties off the last of the bottom rows.  

With only a few hours total to design and build our benches, we've ended up with very successful and unique designs and a comfortable place to enjoy the fire.  
The Stargazer:

The Rocker:

The Modernist Weave:

Small groups meet up to discuss the differences between intent and impact and the importance of clear communication within a team.  Everyone can empathize with a time when their intent was misunderstood.  Try as we may, language is an imperfect medium.

The evening closes with a few more Spotlights, though Zeke and Phoenix have both headed to bed early tonight so Anna, Addison, and Reid volunteer.  Anna shares about her experiences working in a homeless shelter and how she gained perspective on life through a series of interactions.  Addison recalled a time he was mystified by finding a white polo shirt in the toilet and the hilarity that ensued.  Reid closed out the night with the story of Project Mitten - an ambitious project took on by our friends at Tinkering School where the kids set out to build a boat and sail it on Lake Michigan.  

Tomorrow is the big reveal of the project for this week.  Be sure to check back soon!



Day 1: Beauty

Day 1: Beauty

After months of anticipation, we have finally arrived at our week of overnight camp, wrapped in the beauty of the Redwoods of the California Coast.  All of our host sites have added something special to the flavor and the project possibilities of our camps, and Westminster Woods does not disappoint!  There's nothing quite like the sense of calm and wonder motivated by a sky-reaching grove of nature's giants.  

Session E: Working At The Car Wash, Yeah!

Wow. What a week! We began with the simple starting point of 'car wash' and we have built a gull-winged Tesla that can comfortably seat five people, transporting them through a multi-colored Floptopus, car-cleaning rotating rollers, water jets and a repurposed shop vacuum drying system! Not bad for five days work, we think you'll agree!

Friday provides us with one of our shortest, but often most productive, build sessions. It is always incredible to see how much our campers can achieve with the added constraint of a deadline, and this group was no exception. The morning build session saw our teams conduct trials and testing, decorate, embellish and fine tune the various parts of their projects.

After a well-deserved lunch and park break, 2.15pm fast approaches. This is the moment we've all been waiting for...

Welcome to the Project Ember Car Wash!

All our passengers enter the 'PROJEMB' Tesla through an elegant gull-wing door. The Tesla team had the tall order of creating a vehicle that could comfortably seat five people - and they took the idea of comfort to the next level, with padded seats and a trunk to boot! They also devised a track and pulley system, ensuring 'PROJEMB' will glide smoothly through the car wash conveyor belt.  

A few final tests are needed before our car wash is ready for action. Christopher checks the water release system, and finds a willing participant in Evan. (He seems pretty happy with it!) 

We're now ready to add the colored water and put the Floptopus to work.

Our first crew through the car wash are the 'Tesla Team': Cory, Devran, Evan, Lucas A and Yildiz. They receive the colored water experience...

Next through the car wash are Asha, Varun, Lavanya, Ella and Zach. 

Unfortunately we did not prepare enough milk jugs of colored water, so buckets of water are brought in as a replacement. 'PROJEMB's passengers get a little wetter this time around...

Next up: Alyssa, Michael, Sophie and Logan get the Floptopus treatment.

We wouldn't want you to think it was just the kids who got soaking wet - we put the Junior Collaborators through too...

After a good soaking from the Floptopus, 'PROJEMB' makes its way through a series of rotating rollers. All the trials, errors and iterations earlier this week have paid off, as the side rollers now operate using a neat spinning system using castors, dowel and paracord (check out the videos later in this post to see them in action).

As 'PROJEMB' makes its way through the rotating rollers, there is the added surprise of an inspired water jet system. [All the photos below can become full sized images - just click on them].

After all the washing and cleaning action our Tesla has encountered, it is now time for 'PROJEMB' and her passengers to dry off...

Now that 'PROJEMB' has been thoroughly washed and dried, our car wash comes to an end and the Tesla door is closed for the last time.

But before we say farewell to our fantastic campers, here are some videos capturing all the action...

We hope you have enjoyed this project as much as we have. Our first week in San Jose has proved to be a fun and focussed one. Our campers have shown what can be achieved with a powerful combination of perseverance, determination, enthusiasm and ingenuity. We think the laughter, smiles and shrieks of joy speak for themselves!

Session E: Photo Update

Our car wash is coming on in leaps and bounds. Despite (in fact, very much because of...) the problem-solving, undoing and iterative frustrations we have already encountered in this project, we are now making fantastic progress.  

The team working on the first part of our car wash - the Floptopus - have been engineering a sophisticated swinging system with a built in water release mechanism!

Thursdays provide a unique opportunity for our campers to explore the wide variety of creative resources at RAFT; a particularly exciting prospect when you've got a Floptopus to make!

Ella, Asha and Zach delve into the sponge section.

Every day we like to create meaningful learning moments that our campers can build into both their projects and their lives beyond camp. One of the most poignant this week was about the art of undoing. Sometimes the best solution is not to keep pursuing a particular design problem; putting time, effort, resources and materials into finding a mediocre solution that feels unsatisfying, unreliable or just not quite right. Sometimes undoing your work is the answer. It can feel counterintuitive, like all the time you have previously invested is now wasted, but in fact, it often leads to the solution.

The 'spinning roller team' have already learnt this valuable lesson this week (see our earlier blog post on fun and frustration).

Smiles all round, as the roller team make impressive progress. By understanding earlier pitfalls and in developing a better solution, they have been able to complete the mechanism for all four spinning side rollers and developing designs for an overhead roller system!

Varun has taken on his own special side project, creating a water jet system to compliment the rollers...

No car wash would be complete without a way of drying the car, and ours is no exception! The hardworking Busta brothers - Lucas and Logan, have realised their drying system with time to spare and are now working with Team Floptopus.

Logan works on a water release contraption. 

Lucas stringing sponges to embellish the Floptopus.

And finally, the car itself. 

The Tesla team have been working hard to bring their ambitious design to life; encountering a few setbacks along the way. One of the plywood sides suffered a slight injury when part of it snapped off, but the team quickly pulled together and built a strong supporting frame. With a structurally sound vehicle, the team are turning their attention to the aesthetics and comfort of the Tesla experience!

There is just something about sponges today! The Tesla team have also been utilising RAFT's resources to create comfortable seating for the car.

With only a short build session standing between us and a fully functioning car wash, the anticipation for tomorrow afternoon is palpable. Please join us for what looks set to be a dynamic day! 

Session E: Fun and Frustration

Welcome to Wednesday, aka Hump Day; the mid-point of, and often the toughest day in, most people's working week. Here at Project Ember, we often encounter our own particular phenomenon on a Wednesday – frustration.

Monday is a day full of firsts - meeting new people, acquiring new skills, discovering the week's project, devising initial ideas - it is full of hope and excitement, expectation and enthusiasm. 

Tuesday is a day of action. It is a chance to work from yesterday's plans and use the tools, equipment and materials to create prototypes. It is productive and engaging.

And then comes Wednesday...

Wednesday is the day that ideas come together and ideas fall apart. It is the day when we realise that the first idea is rarely the best idea. It is the day for setbacks and failures and learning from mistakes. It is a day of iterations, adjustments, modifications, innovations. It doesn't always feel like progress. In fact, it can be incredibly frustrating. But it is one of the most important days of the project; for all those reasons. 


It is a strange and interesting paradox - that frustration can be fun. But we can vouch for it; we see it and celebrate it every single day. To us, fun looks a lot like focus, challenge, teamwork and collaboration; resilience, perseverance, curiosity and grit. We see it in innovative new ideas and solutions, in greater knowledge and deeper understanding of a design problem, in a renewed determination to get it right and make it better and, ultimately, in a greater sense of achievement and satisfaction. But don't just take our word for it, see for yourselves...

As we continue to celebrate failures and frustrations and use them as an excellent opportunity for growth, we look forward to sharing the journey with you.


Oh, we almost forgot to mention the other thing we celebrate on Wednesdays...

WOLF SHIRT WEDNESDAY! We hope our campers will help us to continue this time-honoured tradition - keep your eyes peeled in future blog posts.

Session E: Welcome to RAFT

After a colourful culmination of dropping, squeezing and launching paint balloons in Session D, the Project Ember team also had an action-packed weekend; saying a fond farewell to our friends at Black Pine Circle and relocating our program to our new day camp space at RAFT (Resource Area For Teachers) in San Jose.

For those unfamiliar with RAFT, they are a non-profit organisation who are on a mission to promote more hands-on, project-based learning in classrooms; providing ideas, materials and activity kits, as well as professional development programs, for teachers and schools. Our two weeks in San Jose are running simultaneously with RAFT's EduCamp program, so you might see some eager educators coming to view our project as it evolves.

Our team has also grown significantly this week, with three new Junior Collaborators joining the Project Ember family for our two weeks here at RAFT. At 15-16 years of age, Anna, Alex and Addison have experience beyond their years; competent makers with excellent problem-solving and communication skills. We are thrilled to be gaining their insights, enthusiasm and intuitive interpersonal connections.

We are excited to welcome Anna, Alex and Addison to Project Ember (and they seem pretty happy about it too!)

The first day of camp is always an exciting one; it's where we meet and make new friends and learn how to use new tools and equipment safely...

Day one also means project announcement. Here at Project Ember HQ, we have been eagerly awaiting this one - A DRIVE-THROUGH CAR WASH! We are particularly excited by the opportunity this project poses to fully immerse our campers creativity and imagination, and we have the added bonus of accessing some unusual materials and recycled products from RAFT's warehouse and resource centre. 

We initially split into two main groups, with campers following their own personal interests; either engineering the car and track or creating car cleaning contraptions. A productive design session ensued, with the car and track team (consisting of Cory, Devran, Evan, Lucas A and Yildiz) devising ambitious plans to recreate a gull-winged Tesla!

The Tesla Team come to an exciting agreement on the design of the car and track

The (rather large) car wash contraption team divided in order to conquer. Asha, Ella and Zach took on the challenge of creating a soaper-upper; with long, dangling, octopus-esq tentacles, it is excitingly and affectionately known as the 'Floptopus'! The next stage in the car wash conveyor belt is actually cleaning the car, for which Alyssa, Lavanya, Michael, Sophie and Varun are designing a series of spinning rollers to scrub and rinse (look out for a potential water jet system!) And finally, Logan and Lucas B are excited to be working on a drying system.

Session D: An Explosive Ending

Session D: An Explosive Ending

Thursday is always a big day at camp full of the "nearly there" challenges that are a part of any big project.  We've accomplished a huge amount already, transforming our site from a stock pile of wood and screws to large contraptions that almost work.  But the difference between almost working and working is often a tremendous amount of work - it's the heart of tinkering. 

Session D: Photo Update

Session D: Photo Update

On Wednesday, we take a deeper dive into the nuances of a drill vs. an impact driver. Now that we've had two days of practice using these tools, the kids have more context to understand when they might prefer one over the other.

Session D: Color Explosion

Session D: Color Explosion

It's hard to believe it's already our last week at Black Pine Circle, but after a week off for the holiday, we arrived on Monday refreshed and energized to get back into the swing of things.

Session B: Are You Ready To Travel Through Time?!

Pack your bags. We’re about to travel through time and space! 

The past few days have been a whirlwind of enterprise, enthusiasm, exploration and experimentation. Our 'time machine' narrative has been continuously evolving, as have our campers confidence and skill-sets; learning and using new tools and equipment has allowed them to devise bold structures, mechanisms, characters and set designs that go beyond the technical, into the artistic terrain of world-building.

Both Carter (top left) and Aaron (bottom right) use the jigsaw to create parts and props for this weeks project. Shohum (bottom left) uses the skilsaw to carefully cut walls for the time machine whilst Zara (top right) finds the hand saw helpful to cut out buttons and design details.

As our Friday deadline swiftly approached, teamwork was still top of the agenda; with campers stepping up to offer help and assistance on different parts of the project, ensuring everything was ready in time for the grand reveal.


And now for the moment you've all been waiting for!

Our intrepid travellers enter the time machine, all set to journey into the past...

Unbeknown to them, the time machine encounters a glitch (dum, dum, dum), and instead of returning to a previously lived scene from the past, they find themselves in an alternate reality in which the dinosaurs never became extinct! 

It is here that our time travellers are met by the Mine-o-sauraus and Boss-o-sauras (Pan-o-sauraus was too tall to get in the shot. He was even too tall to fit under our 8ft high shade structure!), who are mining the rivers of Pompeii (pre-eruption onf Vesuvius of course) during the middle of the gold rush. 

Pan-o-sauraus is mining for gold, whilst Boss-o-sauruas oversees the work.

A close-up of Pompeii.

Our travellers return to their trusty time machine, intending to go back to the future...

But they unknowingly remain in this alternate reality, and when they arrive in the future they find themselves on Mars! The dinosaurs (who have since evolved into lizard overlords) mined the Earth into extinction and all remaining forms of life (including the human race) had to move to Mars. 

A mountainous Martian landscape, with our historic homeland in the distance.

Our time travellers arrive at a time when the lizard overlords are feuding with the native marsupial people about the 9-5 work day.

The native marsupial people protest the 9-5 work day.

Whilst the native marsupial people believe in a free world for everyone, the lizard overlords are able to enforce the 9-5 work day, by blocking the portal back to Earth.

A lizard overlord guards the portal.

To see time travel in action, check out our short video clip...


And now for a little preview of what went on behind-the-scenes...

We think you'll agree it's been quite a week! We would like to thank our campers for their energy, enthusiasm, determination and perseverance (as well as their patience in waiting for this blog post – we’ve been experiencing a few technical difficulties here at Project Ember HQ, but we’re all sorted now).

Session B: Days Two and Three

Its only day two and already our teams are making spectacular progress. Yesterday we announced this weeks project using two simple words: time machine, and since then our campers have created an impressive narrative in which our time travellers will visit two alternate realities; a past in which dinosaurs were never extinct, where we find them during the middle of the gold rush, mining the rivers of Pompeii (pre-eruption of Vesuvius!) Going back to the future, the dinosaur race has evolved into lizard overlords, and the entire human race is now living on Mars. It’s going to be an exciting few days making this vision into a reality!

So, let’s introduce you to the teams…


The Past (Eugene, Robert, Rudy and Cam - with Jane and Josh)

There might only be four of them, but this group feels much bigger than they are. Enthusiastic and hard working, this group are simultaneously building the backdrop of Pompeii, as well as a number of dinosaur miners! Eugene has been working methodically and taking responsibility for the Pompeii props, including iterations of design and a variety of construction techniques. Rudy and Cam have been building the supporting structures for Mount Vesuvius and have been tirelessly chopsawing away, testing, stabilising and problem solving throughout the day. Dinosaur creation has largely been Robert’s domain (with a little help from some friends – thanks Josh) and we are all looking forward to meeting the Boss-o-saur, Miner-saur and Pan-o-saur as they mine for gold in the rivers on Friday.


The Future (Sophia, Archie, Daisy, Eva, Lucy, Tasso, Ry, Gabe and Jeffrey - with Chris, Aakash and Benjamin)

This group are the first to incorporate paint and surface design/texture into their project (although we’re confident that they won’t be the last!). Daisy, Eva, Lucy and Archie have been creating the landscape, giving us all a better sense of what futuristic ‘Life on Mars’ will look like. Sophia joined the futuristic team today, initially to lend an extra pair of helpful hands, but became so engrossed on the groups plan to create a space dome, that she has decided to remain with the Future team. She has been working with Gabe and Jeffrey to build a space dome. Ry and Tasso have collaborated to create a robot and are looking forward to problem solving a suitably sophisticated portal into the future.


The Time Machine (Ohad, Shohum, Aaron, Arson, Marly, Zara, Carter, Kaia, Katy, Makeda, Tavi and Anna – with Jenny and Roe)

The time machine, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a very popular part of this weeks project (who wouldn’t want to create a vehicle to travel through time?!) Twelve members strong, it seemed logical to divide and conquer, so the group split into three smaller teams; Shohum, Ohad, Marly, Zara, Makeda and Anna taking on the challenge of designing a vehicle for time travel; Kaia, Katy, Carter, Tavi designing and building the track on which it should travel; and Arson and Aaron designing a pulley system to add functionality and enable the time machine to move smoothly between the future and the past.

The entire team came back together at regular intervals to discuss the specifics of designs and dimensions, and to conduct tests and trials between the two components. This was not without its setbacks and the team encountered many frustrating moments, but remained supportive and determined throughout, using these challenges as an opportunity for growth. It gave the team a great insight into the purpose and function of prototyping and it was particularly special to share in the collective acknowledgement of small successes; the culmination of teamwork and great participation!

Welcome to Session B

This week at Project Ember we welcome our biggest group yet, with 25 campers joining us for the creation of wild and wonderful new worlds. We are super stoked to have three alumni campers with us this week, sharing their skills and expertise with those who are new to Project Ember and the world of maker-focussed project-based learning. A big part of our program is to challenge our alumni campers, encouraging them to try harder than they have before, to work outside of their comfort zone and to be the best camper and teammate they can be - a Project Ember Ambassador if you will (and perhaps a Junior Collaborator in the making?!)

Our three alumni campers; Robert, Arson and Tasso recapping their tool knowledge with Josh

We are also very excited to welcome some new (and not so new) faces - Roe, Aakash and Benjamin - into the Project Ember family, as they join us as Collaborators this week, bringing with them a bucket load of experience and enthusiasm. All three have a wealth of educational, community and maker-focussed experience; Benjamin’s love of learning has steered him towards many interesting projects and ventures (we’re pleased to be able to add Project Ember to the list!) His background is in architecture, building off-grid sustainable homes - Earthships (you should check them out), and has worked with young people as an academic youth mentor. Aakash, a firm friend of Project Ember, returns this week, bringing his extensive experience of working with young people as a High School Physics teacher and an engineering prowess to watch out for! And last, but by no means least, we are excited to introduce you to Roe, whose passions lie in connection and community. Roe will be enriching our camp experience with her infectious enthusiasm, intuitive sense and instinctive understanding of the needs of young people.

We began the week in the time honoured tradition of getting-to-know you games, group agreements, expectations and goals. The campers highlighted the importance of ‘learning new things’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ as their key goals for the week, which we couldn’t be happier about! Cultivating curiosity is one of our guiding principles and we are passionate about creating an authentic environment for young people to explore, experiment, challenge the status quo and stretch their imagination to its limits. This week’s project provides the perfect opportunity to do just that, but before we tell you what it is, here are a few snaps of our campers during tool training…

PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT TIME: this week we are building a time machine! We are leaving the finer details up to the imaginations of our campers, but for now we can confirm that we will be travelling both to the past and the future, so hold on to your hats!


* Huge apologies to Session B campers and their families for the delay in this blog post. We’ve been experiencing a few technical difficulties here at Project Ember HQ (but we’re all sorted now). Thank you for your patience!

Session A: Marble Run Finale

Wow…what a week to kick off summer! Since we announced the challenge of building the World's longest marble run, our campers have been on a mission to incorporate fun, interactive elements into the mix and have come up with some incredibly creative solutions; spirals, ramps, jumps, cascades, plinko and pinball-style challenges.

Thursday was our last full day of building, with many challenges and changes, as collaborations between teams took place to ensure the success of a fully functioning marble run, extending not only the length of the blacktop, but an entire storey! The campers demonstrated excellent team work, cooperation, determination and grit to achieve this.