Kids dream big at Inventors' Fair

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The hallways at Pine Tree Plaza were crawling with kids, display boards and a mind-boggling array of inventions Friday, from an "aquachair" (think bean bag chair filled with water instead), a "napkin sleeve," a portable art canvas that folds up into something about the size of a paper towel roll but folds out into a proper painting surface, an all-season garden, a better gutter cleaner and dozens more inventions and games dreamed up by local elementary school students.

In total, nearly 150 fourth- and fifth-grade students from Cloquet, Esko and Moose Lake came to the second Inventors' Fair in Cloquet to explain their special inventions to anyone who would listen.

Ari Juntunen was the mastermind behind the portable art canvas.

"I was thinking about things I could sell for art," the Esko sixth-grader explained. "There is already a collapsible easel, so I thought, 'how about a collapsable canvas?'"

Juntunen got busy designing his idea, and recruited his dad to help him build it (especially when it came time to use power tools). They used repurposed wood from an old whiteboard, screws, bolts, wing nuts and an old vinyl blind for the demonstration project. If he were to actually market his invention, Juntunen said he would have a canvas scroll inside instead.

It actually works quite well, he said.

"If you're going to the mountains and like to paint, this is perfect," he said. "In fact, I brought it here in my backpack this morning!"

Cloquet gifted and talented coordinator Deb Peterson said they ended up with more than 75 inventions. This was the second year the Inventors' Fair was held in Cloquet and the first time Esko and Moose Lake students joined in the fun. Peterson decided Cloquet should have its own fair after the state quit funding the event — a much larger gathering previously held at the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth — and made it happen with help from the Cloquet Educational Foundation. Categories for Inventors' Fair include clothing/health and beauty aids, foods, games and toys, handicapped aids, homework helpers, household helpers, outdoor recreation and sports, pets, safety, technology, and miscellaneous.

Sports was a popular category Friday.

Moose Lake student Brady Robbins demonstrated how the "Magna-ball and gloves" can help kids learn and get into the habit of catching a football. To assist them, Robbins glued tiny magnets to a foam football AND inside a pair of football gloves.

Robbins' sales pitch was outlined on his board: "After practicing your catch with the Magna-ball and gloves, simply take them off and try it with a regular football. You won't believe how much your catching has improved with Magna-ball!"

And what could be better than combining sports with games?

That's exactly what Esko fourth-graders Sam Panger, Nolan Pfister and Bobby Thornton did with their game, Slap Shot Trivia. Players must get the correct answer to a trivia question before they are allowed to shoot (using mini hockey sticks and balls) at a homemade goalie target with six holes, with different point values. The number of points the player scores (or not) determines how many spaces he or she can move on the game board.

"With this game you're getting up and moving," Panger said, adding that players also have to strategize, because there are obstacles on the board that they want to avoid, so the number of points scored is important."

The questions aren't too difficult, said Pfister, grabbing one that asked "What player is most likely to wear a throat protector?"

The boys had a steady stream of school kids ready to try their game, which was very nicely put together.

Miscellaneous category judges Matt Winbigler and Nicole Shannon were impressed by a number of projects, include the Garden for All Seasons by Hunter Carr.

The Washington fifth-grader — who wants to be a chef when he grows up — said he loves gardening and cooking for his family. He grows his own herbs in the summer but wanted a fresher option in the winter. So he built his own self-watering indoor garden and now has fresh thyme, basil, rosemary and tiny pear tomatoes growing inside his home. And he can even watch the plants grow beneath the soil, because he put a plexiglass front on the garden container.

Carr even put together a promotional booklet on his invention, to add to his already very polished display.

Down a different aisle, Churchill fourth-grader Steven Snedker explained to judges how he created a water bottle holder for his desk, determining that magnets were a better than glue at keeping the holder attached to his desk.

After more than two hours of presenting to the judges and each other, it was time for an awards ceremony. Judges ranked the top three in each category, and students also voted for the "student choice awards," with kids from one school voting for their top three favorites from another school.

Snedker said the fair was fun but a little nerve racking, at least the presenting part.

"I told my mom I had butterflies when I came in but they went away," he said.

"I think it's interesting," said Steven's mom, who was watching from the side of the hallway as her son presented. "It drew some creativeness from him."