A joyful elementary school-aged girl approaches teacher Kim Palonder in the hall of Charleroi Area High School on the first day of Camp Invention.

"This is the best camp ever," she exclaims. "I'm pretty sure this tops horse camp."

Monday marked the start of Camp Invention, a weeklong event that helps students make connections between science, technology, engineering and innovation. In its second year, 103 students from Belle Vernon Area, California Area, Bentworth and Ringgold as well as Charleroi Area school districts are attending.

Palonder, who teaches physics at Charleroi Area High School, brought the camp to the district last year. There were 39 students in the first year of the camp. This year, 103 students are attending.

Palonder said the increased attendance was the direct result of a $15,000 grant from EQT, defraying the cost to $70 per student. Last year, the tuition was $220.

In addition to science, technology, engineering and math concepts, the camp also introduces elementary-aged students to teamwork and problem solving skills.

As the students were moving among five stations, it was hard to tell if they were amazing themselves or the teachers more.

Art teacher Patrick Camut was leading Games Base 50. Students were encouraged to create their own rules to the games such as zookeeper, based on freeze tag. Some came up with ideas that even amazed the teacher.

"The kids' creativity is so pure and sincere, and that goes along with STEAM," said Camut, who likes adding art to the curriculum.

Camut said the teachers are working even more in concert.

"This helps me to be a better teacher," Camut said. "They have me thinking outside the box."

They were thinking outside the box, such as the boom box -- along with keyboards, hard drives and sewing machines -- with students disassembling in Laurie Lash's class, Takeaparts.

In the first two days, the student disassemble the item, learning how they work. Excess parts are collected in egg cartons so they can be shared later in the week when they use the parts to create something.

"The lesson is being able to be creative," said Lash, a secondary algebra teacher.

Lash noted that some students in the national program eventually went on to acquire a patent.

"I'm a firm believer in getting their imaginations started early," Lash said.

Lash said the lessons learned at Camp Invention transcend all academic fields and curriculum.

"I think it's important to show kids working in groups," Lash said. "Kids may be afraid to try. It's important to teach them to try. It's okay to make a mistake. What did you learn? Go back and try again."

In the class of Nick Arico, high school chemistry teacher, students were learning demolition technology. The students built mini make-shift towers and brought them down with wrecking balls or chemical reactions from vinegar and baking soda.

"This establishes how science works," Arico said. "They can change one variable for a different outcome."

The students in his class will one day make a motorized disco ball to creating bracelets that follow binary codes.

"It's no more complicated than playing a game, but they're thinking, problem-solving," Arico said as he watched kindergarten and first-grade students hard at work.

In Epic Park, students were being inspired to create an imaginary tourist attraction by that name. It included everything from the map and palm trees to creating a lever that will operate the elevator that carries the tourists. For the first-graders, the first step was explaining the meaning of tourists.

"You sometimes have to adapt the (lesson) plan accordingly and improvise based on the grade level," said Howard Johnson, a middle school science teacher.

"But they still use the same skills, it's just different levels."

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