This camp is hands on!

When you open the catchall junk drawer in your home, what do you see?

A mess? Clutter? Trash?

How about the makings of an amazing art project, a super-cool robot or all the necessary ingredients for a never-seen-before science experiment?

Kids in Leonardo’s Basement summer classes are encouraged to see the latter. They’re urged to use their creativity and imaginations to the fullest. 

With the right mindset, a bucket of trinkets can turn into an invaluable treasure trove of inspiration and — with work and determination — brand-new creations.  

Thanks to an incredibly diverse class list and a collection of cool tools and supplies at the south Minneapolis workshop, it’s not too hard to get enthused. 

In June and August, for example, a morning class titled Mega Marble Run will challenge kids age 6 to 9 to make “the biggest, most amazing” marble track ever. 

In July, ages 11 and older can sign up for an afternoon class — titled A Small Buoyant Structure for Travel on Water — in which kids build boats or personal contraptions that float, followed by a day of play at Lake Harriet.

The A-to-Z list of more than 100 other classes available at Leonard’s Basement includes kid- and teen-friendly topics such as American Girl Doll Carpentry; LEGO Robotics; Millennium Falcon; Dog Houses and Cat Furniture; Bows, Arrows and Katniss’s Quiver; Build What You Want; 3D Printing; and Geek Barista.

Student-driven

Thirteen-year-old Mana McBurnie from Northeast Minneapolis said she’s enjoyed Leonardo’s Basement art classes such as tie dye and mosaics as well as more technical classes, such as a CNC router class in which kids learn to program a computer-controlled cutting machine. (This year a class called Intro to Raspberry Pi will teach kids how to program credit card–sized single-board computers.) 

Leonardo’s Basement staff members take into account feedback from the previous summer’s students when they’re trying to come up with new classes every year.

They also try to see the world from a kid’s point of view by asking themselves: “What would my 10-year-old self want to do?” 

Students are also given the freedom to tailor their classes to their whims by tweaking class themes on the fly if there’s common interest among the kids. 

For example, a few summers ago, kids in one class realized they all had a fascination with the British television show, Doctor Who. Soon, it evolved into a Doctor Who-themed class, inspiring the kids to create a life-sized TARDIS. (This summer, there’s a Doctor Who Accessories class.)

Mana’s younger brother, 10-year-old Morien McBurnie, said he remembers one of his first classes changing its theme, too. 

After one of his classmates started to craft a baseball bat, he wanted to make one too. Soon the entire class realized a common love of baseball and decided to shift the focus of the class. 

Empowering kids in this way gives each class a fresh and undiscovered feeling, said program director Tracy Nielsen. 

New location

Leonardo’s Basement — formerly located at Nicollet Avenue and 43rd Street — moved two miles south to West 60th Street (between Nicollet Avenue and Lyndale Avenue) last year.

Though the location has changed, the emphasis on designing, making and doing is as strong as ever with a new workshop — nearly three times the size of the one in the previous location — plus special areas dedicated to LEGOs, electronics, woodworking and metal working. 

A new outdoor space will be used for team-built structures and sculptures this summer.  

“It’s never the same week twice,” Nielsen said. 

And that’s quite a feat for a nonprofit going into its 18th year of programming.  

Looking back

It all started in 1997 when a dozen elementary-age students at Clara Barton Open School, a Minneapolis public school, asked their parents about forming an after-school club where they could choose and direct their own projects and go on field trips. 

Those kids’ parents incorporated Leonardo’s Basement as a tax-exempt, nonprofit educational organization one year later.

They named their endeavor after Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), beloved throughout the ages for his curious and observing mind. 

“He is the exemplary Renaissance man — integrating engineering, art, science and technology,” the nonprofit’s website says. “Second, the name conveys our interest in discovery and experimentation and the informal nature of heading into the ‘basement,’ where tinkering and exploration is encouraged.”

The workshop has served more than 11,000 students — including adults — since 1998. 

More than just building

Kids at Leonardo’s Basement learn art and science through hard work and play.

In the process, they also learn about trial and error — the failure that often comes before success — and the importance of perseverance. 

“The most important skills they develop are the ones you don’t see,” said founder and executive director Steve Jevning. 

While the kids may learn many technical skills during classes, Jevning said, “It’s more important that they continue to be imaginative and curious.” 

That’s part of the organization’s philosophy of valuing “process over product.”

It’s about embracing difficulty, not avoiding it. And the kids are supported with a student-to-staff minimum ratio of 8-1.

Kids who want a real challenge can visit the workshop’s command-center simulator — a small pod with just enough room for a chair and buttons galore. While sitting inside, they have to figure out a correct sequence of buttons to press and levers to switch. Through a process of trial and error, kids continue to tinker until something works. 

And when it comes to creating art and other inventions, kids won’t find all the perfect supplies on site. 

When a project needs some eyeballs, for example, the workshop encourages more than just googly eyes. 

“We try to get them to think about using materials in a different way,” Nielsen said. “There’s always another way to do something.” 


Lauren Cutshall is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a student at the University of Minnesota.