Camp Discover Class Focus: Math and Engineering

by Erika Solberg

It’s Wednesday at Camp Discover, the second day of classes, and the students in the first period of “Breakout Games + Math = The Perfect Combination” are ready to go. Teacher Natalie McCutchen has created a course where campers work on problem-solving, math skills, and teamwork as they solve breakout games and design their own. On the first day they explored various online breakout games, and now she is asking them to create one.

She tells them, “In your teams, I want you to design a digital breakout game that uses sixth-grade math topics and has at least four locks that players will have to solve. Today you will be building the skeleton of the game, and you will flesh it out tomorrow.”

To aid them in designing the game, each team will fill out a planning chart that asks them what the theme and backstory of the game are, where they will get their math questions for each lock in the game, what kind of locks they will use, and what the code will be for each lock. Students can review sixth-grade math topics at and can look for math questions on a variety of sites, such as Flocabulary, Quzziz, and Quizlet.

As the students start working, Natalie clarifies, “Your codes will come from the math — you will have the players solve a problem to get a certain answer, and that answer will get them to the code.”

The teams come up with a variety of themes.

At first, Isyss Best-Allen and Jordyn Bethel suggest “The Lost Butterfly,” but when teammate Corwin Meredith mentions how hungry he is, the team settles on “Corwin’s Stolen Egg McGriddle.”

Cayden Conner, Kohen Coffey, and Allie Poynter opt for a space theme: “Your spaceship’s engine breaks down, so you have to go to the engine room and turn the engine back on, or else you will be trapped in space forever!” They plan on an additional lock to make the game more challenging.

Rinie Smith, Melina Kargarzadeh, and Briella Harris go in a different direction: their game will be called “Masquerade Mayhem” and will feature characters from the interactive fiction video game Doki Doki Literature Club! The goal will be “to find out who is behind the mask.”

Finally, Nathaniel Ware, Bennett Uland, and Noah Hester, pulling from their personal interests, will do a Minecraft and Fortnite mash-up. Nathaniel suggests, “One problem could involve a ratio between Fortnite scars and Minecraft balls.”

“This is fun,” Isyss says as her team starts exploring where to find their math problems. “This is my best class!”


In the second-period class of “Engineering to the Rescue,” the students are excited for another day of exploring the engineering design process as they develop prototypes of various life-saving inventions and try to beat the clock.

Teacher Melissa Rudloff introduces today’s challenge by telling them about when her family went boating on Lake Michigan in Chicago: “The captain required us to wear a PFD, and I didn’t know what that stood for. I looked it up, and it means ‘personal flotation device.’ But what makes a PFD work? What makes things sink or float?”

Tom the Can, floating thanks to his PFD.

To investigate, her students, in teams of two, will use common materials to develop a PFD that can provide enough support to float an unopened can for one minute. The device must be all one piece, the designers must be able to put it on the can in no more than 20 seconds, and the device must simulate how a person would use a PFD by allowing the can to be partially submerged in water but leave at least a quarter of it above the water.

Melissa reviews the engineering design process, which the class learned the day before. She encourages them to study available materials — glue, tape, rubber bands, paperclips, scissors, craft foam, plastic punch cups, sandwich baggies, balloons, and straws — and make a sketch before they start building. She also suggests that they take advantage of beta testing before the final test at the end of class. She provides three cans — Tom, his brother Tom, and his cousin Tom — and a dish tub of water for them to practice with.

The class is instantly busy. Students are drawing, inflating baggies and balloons, cutting plastic cups, tracing circles in strips of foam, cutting straws, and laughing when they realize their swimmer, Tom, got his name from the fact that he is full of petite diced tomatoes.

Bailey James and Alyssa Jeakle seem to be off to a strong start as they cover half a punch cup with a balloon that they will then cover in foam. Unfortunately, they realize their design is more of a boat than a life vest, so they start over.

Brady Golliher is testing four tiny foam triangles to see how buoyant they are before he and partner Malayla Autry create rings of foam. “One layer of foam won’t be enough,” he says.

Timothy Wiedemer explains that the design he and Oren Tyler have concocted involves a baggie filled with air and fasted to Tom the Can with a rubber band: “But we will use two bags so he won’t choke.”

Later, Bailey and Alyssa try their new design, a wrapping of foam assisted by several straws taped together. At first they think they, and Tom, are sunk, but then Alyssa shouts, “It’s floating on its side — the side with the straws! We have to add more straws!” A later test proves the theory correct, and they decide to add even more straws to make sure.

When the first team comes up to the front of the class for their final testing, Melissa asks for “quiet on the set” because “Tom is a little nervous.” Bailey and Alyssa’s design is a success, as is Timothy and Oren’s, each keeping Tom afloat for a full minute. Another PFD prototype, created by Rybal Qaisi and Gabe Boahmah, is less successful — they have four balloons attached to Tom with rubber bands, and the balloons take up too much room in the tub. But when Gabe takes one balloon off, Tom is able to float, and Melissa praises their redesign. “It was a good design that needed to be modified,” she says, reminding them that re-thinking and redesigning are key parts of what engineers do.

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