What I did on my summer vacation

Area middle schoolers learn life and career skills at summer camps

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Marcus, an 11-year-old entrepreneur with a creative spirit, has an invention that he thinks will interest Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

So, naturally, Marcus did what any confident inventor would do: He emailed Phelps about his idea, a handheld swimsuit dryer, to see if the Olympian would be interested in sponsoring it.

"I think he may be interested if he's a passionate swimmer and hates the time [it takes] to dry off," Marcus said. The dryer, prompted by Marcus' impatience at how long it takes to dry a swimsuit, is genius in its simplicity. The device is a plastic cylinder with a rod inside that twists a swimsuit until most of the water is at the bottom. A cap at the bottom opens, so the water can be poured out.

Although Marcus hasn't heard from Phelps yet, he's sure that he will. Marcus did his research before reaching out to Phelps. What existing products do something similar? Is there a need for this product? Who is the target demographic?

While Marcus may sound like an experienced businessman, he did have a little help, thanks to "Think it, Make it, Sell it," one of the new courses offered this summer for middle schoolers at Virginia Commonwealth University through its Discovery program at the Mary and Frances Youth Center. The center, which has offered the Lobs & Lessons program for schoolchildren each summer for the past five years, added Discovery to its summer programs this year.

"We relaunched [Discovery] this summer with a strong focus on STEM, health sciences and the arts," said Tina Carter, director of the youth center. "We thought this was a great time. It's a nice alignment with VCU's Quest for Distinction, and it's part of our plan to increases our middle school programming options.

"Living a healthy lifestyle does stimulate not just your muscles, but it keeps your brain going. It keeps you more interested in doing other activities."

The Mary and Frances Youth Center provides programming and training for children in the Richmond area. Its Lobs & Lessons camp offers tennis, swimming, outdoor adventure games and healthy lifestyle activities. Discovery offers children a variety of courses from engineering, science and technology to health care and the arts — all in a college setting.

In addition to engaging children in the community, the programs also involve VCU students.

Josh Gentry, a student in the School of Education's physical education master's program, is a camp counselor for Lobs & Lessons. Rising juniors Shruthi Muralidharan, a biomedical engineering major, and Osman Malik, a business major, are instructors in the "Think it, Make it, Sell it" class. All have talked about how much they get out of helping the children.

"Without even us influencing them, or [asking] them, the kids have come up to us just the very first day and said they've really enjoyed this project," Muralidharan said. "There's a good bunch of kids, a good mix here."

"Think it, Make it, Sell it" aims to get the students involved in entrepreneurship and engineering, so they realize they can actually invent things and make a profitable business. On the first day of the weeklong course, students develop ideas for their inventions. Days two and three consist of researching their ideas and building prototypes out of clay. On day four, experienced entrepreneurs visit the class to talk to students about how best to present their products. On the final day, the students pitch their inventions — ranging from sports gadgets to food — to a group of angel investors.

Steven, a 12-year-old rising seventh grader, is developing a stopwatch inside a glove for track and field runners who "want to time themselves but don't want to take out their phone," he said.

"I like running track and don't like to take out my phone so I had this idea," Steven said. "I looked up the market outlook to see who I thought would want to buy this stuff. I looked up people who already had this idea. There weren't that many."

Steven says his product will stand out from his competitors' because it will be more affordable and easier to use.

Thirteen-year-old Lauren, a rising eighth grader, took a different direction with her invention. After conducting market research, Lauren made an important discovery: There is a large candy market.

"They told us to pick two of our hobbies and [mine] was painting and eating," she said. "So I put them together. … It's edible crayons — crayons you can eat, made of candy and food, and, like, chocolate and food coloring."

Other Discovery courses this year included "Discover Dentistry," "Engineer it!," "Fashion Design" and "Grow Your Own."

For Marcus, inventor of the handheld swimsuit dryer, "Think it, Make it, Sell it" is the best.

"You get to learn stuff and go to different campuses and buildings," he said, adding that he has many more ideas. "I am interested in making my own idea … and showing it to business investors."

When asked if he had anything more to say about his product, Marcus showed he's a savvy marketer as well as an inventor.

"Buy it!" he said.

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