Amazon kicked off its “A to Z Experience” STEM summer camp on Wednesday by offering kids the chance to tour its Seattle headquarters buildings and a fulfillment center in Kent, Wash.
Twenty boys and girls ranging in age from about 9 to 11 were part of the first wave of what will be seven camps running through the end of July. The children were from the King County Boys and Girls Club out of Burien, as well as Girl Scouts of Western Washington from the White Center area.
As real live Amazonians streamed into the Day 1 tower to start their work day, the camp started with a simple orientation as the kids were all given passports to guide them through the various activities and sites on the schedule.
“How many people do you think work at Amazon in Seattle?” they were asked.
“About 2 million?” a young girl replied.
While it may feel like that on some days around the tech giant’s growing campus, the answer is more like 30,000. And on Wednesday, guided by Amazon volunteers, the kids got to meet several of those workers and learn about what they do for the company. The guiding principle throughout encouraged the attendees to “Think Big, Be Curious, and Be Peculiar.”
Greg Bulmash, a technical evangelist for the company who is also a founder and organizer at Seattle CoderDojo, was giving a demonstration of Leap Motion, a hand-tracking technology used in VR and AR headsets. The kids waved their hands over the device — which can be purchased on Amazon — to control animated animals and sounds on a computer monitor in front of them.
It was clear that the urge to touch the device or perhaps move it like a mouse, rather than hover over it, was instinctual for the kids who may not have had a chance to explore virtual reality yet.
Next up was Amazon design technologist Sheridan Martin, who was in the news this spring for creating a dress modeled after The Spheres which are being constructed between the Doppler and Day 1 buildings. Martin’s dress was on display for the kids to check out as she discussed the fun she gets to have making stuff at work.
“If you never fail you’re not going to get that opportunity to make it better the next time,” Martin said after showing off a cardboard belt she made that had indeed failed.
Justin Schroeder, a program manager for The Spheres where horticulturalists are busy planting hundreds of exotic plants, met the group on a balcony high above street level. He showed off a planter full of insect-eating specimens such as Venus flytraps. The kids looked closely — and asked the just the right creepy questions.
“This can’t hurt people,” Schroeder said. “There’s no man-eating plants out there.”
Amazon Web Services solutions architect Rob Percival was excited to tell the group that he grew up in the same area of Seattle where they were visiting from.
“I’m one of the few people at Amazon you’ll find who is actually from here,” Percival said.
Percival was running a root beer kegerator that was hooked to the cloud via AWS technology aimed at monitoring temperature, humidity, output and more. But a CO2 malfunction prevented Percival from dispensing drinks to the kids and the camp was left with another teachable moment about failing fast.
Along the way through the halls of Day 1 and Doppler, the kids stopped to look at iterations of the Kindle and a display showcasing shipped products over the years. They also left colorful notes in the hallway known as Post Alley where employees and visitors stick messages (not gum, like the Pike Place Market spot) to the wall on Post-It notes.
The Seattle portion of the day wound down in the Expressions Lab, Amazon’s in-house art studio, where the groups of kids were encouraged to come up with the next big thing for Amazon. Some kids quickly embraced the idea of inventing absolutely anything, as one sketched a hover car and another focused on a robot-driven train.
Those who didn’t quite grasp that anything was possible were told, “Remember, Jeff Bezos started in his garage.”
Seattle nonprofit Washington STEM partnered with Amazon on the program, and it’s part of an enhanced effort by the company to better interact with the people where it makes its home.
“The ultimate goal for this program is to inspire and encourage kids in our community to pursue STEM careers someday,” said Allison Flicker, an Amazon spokesperson. “It’s amazing to see it through the eyes of a kid. There is so much that goes on at Amazon that it’s tough, even as an employee, to keep up with all of the cool and innovative and never-done-before projects here. It’s really special for them to realize that Amazon does so much more than deliver packages to their parents at home.”
Chloe Sotheron, 10, said her favorite part of the day was learning about things that give her a better chance of knowing what she might want to be when she grows up.
“I like science because I like how cool things are, and experiments, and how things can make something,” Sotheron said.
Trent Kibbe was most excited about doing the sketch for his big idea — the train driven by a robot — saying that it will bring Amazon employees from one place to another. Maybe someday he’ll be on it himself, as he said he’d like to eventually work at the company.