Like his comic book hero, Tony Stark, 7-year-old Tyler Johnson is a confident inventor who’s always building something.
When he’s not playing with Legos, Tyler constructs Iron Man armor out of paper and searches for construction materials — preferably cardboard boxes — in the garage of his parents’ Kansas City home. Which is why his mom, Chelsea Johnson, signed him up for City Imagineerium, an annual event organized by Learn Science & Math Club that allows kids to build “cities” out of recycled materials.
At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, a few dozen kids ages 5 to 14 kneeled on the floor of Atterbury Student Success Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Using imagination, craft supplies, tape and a wide range of recycled materials — from cardboard boxes and egg cartons to bottle caps and empty laundry detergent jugs — the junior engineers built laboratories, roller coasters and replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben.
Before starting on their cities, the kids had to apply for a building permit and stake out a plot of land. The theme for this year’s City Imagineerium was world cultures, so students were encouraged to replicate historic sites such as the Roman Colosseum and the Great Pyramid. But they were also allowed to build whatever they wanted, said Rebecca Kidwell, president of Learn Science & Math Club.
Kidwell, an engineer, started the nonprofit organization 10 years ago with her husband, David Sherrick, a computer scientist. Their goal was to give local students hands-on experience in science, technology, math and engineering. City Imagineerium and other Learn events are designed to help kids “believe they are capable people who can invent, build and plan,” Kidwell said.
At City Imagineerium, 9-year-old Julia Morgan of Blue Springs built an eco-friendly city fueled by “solar panels” she made by covering cardboard scraps with duct tape. She also designed a cardboard dragon.
“It destroys enemies and cools the whole town by flapping its wings,” Julia said.
Nearby, Morgan’s 6-year-old sister, Emma, built a veterinarian’s office out of a cardboard box.
“Here are the food and water bowls,” Emma said, holding up two plastic bottle caps.
Nine-year-old Caleb Truelove of Kansas City constructed a garage with a rooftop concert venue. He made the stage out of a cardboard box and the seats out of an egg carton. Next to the structure stood trees with paper towel tube trunks and green tissue paper foliage.
“It’s like Starlight Theatre,” Caleb said.
The tallest structure at the event resembled a spiral staircase and was built by Learn Science & Math Club volunteers out of paper towel tubes and dozens of small, rectangular boxes. The group, known as the Red Hot Techie Peppers, was led by 14-year-old Michaela Blank of Kansas City, who loves engineering and robotics but has her heart set on medicine.
“I want to be a veterinarian, physician or surgeon,” Michaela said.
Michaela manned a hot-glue gun as she helped younger participants assemble their cities. Also volunteering at the event was Billy Byrd, supervisor of installation at Time Warner Cable, which partners with Learn on City Imagineerium.
Byrd sat on the floor, chuckling as he watched a busy Tyler construct what he said was the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters from the “Captain America” movies. The cardboard skyscraper had a tube elevator, a helicopter pad, windows made of blue construction paper and a hospital.
“If you broke a leg in battle, that’s where you’d go,” the young engineer said as he applied more tape.