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Innovation at the forefront: ImagineLab summer camps strive for all things new

Vicki Brent sat with 3D pen in hand, testing out drawing designs not on paper, but seemingly in the air.

“It’s time consuming, but it’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it,” she said of the design tool she used in the Dream Builders summer camp, a STEAM-inspired makers program. “I want to say I learned how to be more creative … and able to see stuff in a 3D way.”

Vicki Brent, a rising sophomore at Millbrook High in Raleigh, works on mastering the 3D pen in the Dream Builders camp. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Down the hall in another room, Brent’s twin sister Leiyla, participated in the Game Changers summer camp where she learned to design video games.

“So far I’ve learned how to use GameMaker and Unity. Online I learned how to use Sploder to make a game,” she said.

Leiyla decided to join the Game Changers camp after watching a documentary about game makers. “I was like that sounds cool. Looks fun. People can play my game that I made,” she said. “It’s one of my career choices.”

While Leiyla said she still needs to work on coding, she appreciated that all of her tools to make video games were accessible on the computer so that she could continue working on her projects at home. And her twin sister wasn’t far off her mind.

“I can teach my twin if she ever has any questions about it,” she said. 

Leiyla Brent works on making her video game in the Game Changers summer camp. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Both Dream Builders and Game Changers ran simultaneously for eight weeks this summer as part of the ImagineLab launched by the Carolina Center for Educational Excellence (CCEE) for teens aged 13 through eighteen. Each camp ran in weeklong sessions, with students able to register for additional returning weeks if interested.  This year was the first year of the ImagineLab camps, and nearly 120 students registered to be part of the new program.

Shane, the counselor for Game Changers, guides students through their projects. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“I’ve worked over 25 years in ed-tech, and I’ve run summer camp every year for the last seven years. I’ve never seen anything like what has happened here,” said Lisa Dawley, director of the Master’s program in Educational Innovation Technology and Entrepreneurship (MEITE) at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I think what’s happening here is we are building a new kind of school. It’s a different way of thinking about what learning could be.”

The new space at the CCEE is packed with technology: virtual reality platforms, iPads, Chromebooks, mini robots, 3D pens, a Google Jamboard, Lenovo gaming PCs, and more. In addition to exploring tech and innovation, the ImagineLab explored space design. In one room, every piece of furniture was mobile, so that chairs and tables could be constantly reconnected and reorganized. Students in the Dream Builders camp spilled out their craft projects into the lobby, and students even went between Dream Builders and the Game Changers camps to work on different projects.

“It’s definitely kids as creators. Kids as builders. Kids as producers. Kids as innovators and makers,” said Dawley.

Students take a break to play Mario Kart. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

For Mason Taylor—head counselor for Dream Builders and a rising senior at NC State University studying Technology, Engineering, and Design Education—the ImagineLab is a dream come true.

“It’s kind of my baby a little bit,” Taylor said. “I really had a lot of input on how the camp was structured and what we would be doing during camp, so it’s definitely been a really good experience for me.”

Mason Taylor, head counselor of the Dream Builders summer camp. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

He’s encouraged his students to explore new technologies and threw them into programs like Tinkercad, a 3D design program, where students built out lettered keychains of their names, or even anything as complex as a robot. But Taylor gave them  little direction on purpose. 

“I give them just the bare minimum and just let them go from there and try to explore their own mind, explore their own thoughts, and try to become creative by having to be,” said Taylor.

“I think creativity is kind of dying. With the technology that we have, Google is at our finger tips, and we can just Google everything.”


In the middle of our interview, Taylor was clearly distracted by a student in the lab who was working with a kit called a Makey Makey, which is used to design a game controller with a basic board and copper tape. The student, rising eighth grader Tal Lucas, had turned the copper tape into a bracelet on one hand to complete the circuit.

“I’ve never seen someone do that,” Taylor said with surprise. “That is super impressive.”

I got the feeling that this — seeing a student do something he’d never seen be done before — was exactly the point.


Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.