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Wanted: Digital Kids

Each year, thousands of suitcase-toting campers are encouraged to turn off the televisions, video game consoles and computer screens that occupy much of their time during the school year, and return to nature.

But that’s not the case for thousands of young people who increasingly turn to summer camps to get their high-tech fix. For the last nine years, iD Tech Camps has offered such an option for technology-hungry youth. While computer camps are not new--programs began developing along with the personal computer in the early 1980s--the family-owned company boasts that it is the largest such camp in the United States, offering more than 50 sites on college campuses. It draws about 16,000 students each summer, partners with top-level hardware and software companies, and offers a variety of programs, from Web design to video game creation--with a dash of traditional camp programs thrown in. And for Campbell, Calif.-based iD Tech, it appears to be a winning combination.

Program Development

Karen Thurm Safran, the vice-president of marketing for iD Tech Camps, says that, given the inclinations of pre-teens and young adults today, it’s perhaps not surprising that the most popular of the weeklong courses is in video game design--seven courses total.

Other courses cover comic book creation, Web design, movie editing and computer programming. New this summer is a specialized robotics camp, born out of older robotics programming

The program teaches campers about robotics creation through a series of challenges and team competitions, from robot races to ping-pong-throwing contests. “It has a goal of creating a robot, competing with peers in improving the robot, and improving robotics skills,” says Thurm Safran.

For younger campers, ages 7 to 10, iD Tech offers junior programs in game design and comic book creation. The latter is “kind of a potpourri course” that uses comic book software and photo editing programs to create a digital comic book by the course’s end.

There also are traditional camp activities, including soccer and Frisbee.

“We make sure that the kids don’t just stay at their computers all day,” Thurm Safran says.

At some sites, campers can take advantage of “hybrid” programs: Sports & Tech or Surf & Tech. “The student can spend half the day making a Web site or a video game, and the other half of the day surfing, playing golf, tennis, fencing or doing tae-kwon-do,” she adds.

Another option involves overseas adventure: a cultural immersion program in Spain. Campers in the 2½-week program live with a host family that speaks mostly Spanish, and take Spanish classes with students “from all over the world. In the afternoons, campers will travel around with the iD Tech group--no more than 30 people--sightseeing and shooting video footage of bullfighting or flamenco dancing with handheld digital cameras. In the evening, in a video-editing lab, they then piece the footage together into a documentary under the guidance of a professional videographer. “It’s a very unique program,” says Thurm Safran.

Figuring out what campers want and what courses to offer centers around asking the customers. Campers and parents fill out evaluations each year. “We look at that very carefully. … We also listen to the demands of the culture and the technology environment, as well as what the corporate partners are suggesting.”

Staffers meet at the end of the year to decide what to implement the next summer.

“We are already preparing for 2008,” even in mid-August.

Statistically Speaking

Programs at iD Tech Camps are offered for a wide range of ages, from 7 to 17. Most are of middle-school age with a sizeable contingent of younger campers and teenagers. Campers arrive with a wide range of talents and experiences, from youth who’ve been programming for years to teens with a slight tech background. “It’s a huge bell curve,” Thurm Safran says.

“Some have had this in school; some have never done anything.

“I spoke to a boy recently at Stanford who had never done any programming in his life. In two weeks, he created a chess program.”

And like the gender gap noted in the technology industry, there’s a gender gap at technology camps, Thurm Safran acknowledges. Only 15 percent to 20 percent of campers are girls.

“We’re trying to get more girls to come,” she says. “The girls who come love it--the main thing is letting them know that it’s not just a technology camp, it’s more than that. This is a new way to articulate their creativity.”

Developing Partnerships

One of the main attractions for campers is the cutting-edge technology on hand: computers, video cameras and robotics equipment. Each camper has his or her own computer.

How do the camps get all these goodies? The answer is long-standing relationships with corporate partners, which also offer discounts on hardware and software to campers who want to use the products at home after the summer ends. Adobe, Apple, Cannon, Hewlett-Packard, Logitech, Microsoft, Symantec, Wacom are involved in the iD Tech Camp programs. “They are very eager to work with us,” says Thurm Safran.

“Some of them come to us because we are the leaders in technology camps. They want to work with us and get involved in raising the bar in technology education, and getting kids using their products and being in the forefront of technology.”

The camps are located throughout the country, all on college or university campuses. The prestigious names include UCLA, Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill, Columbia, Vassar, Vanderbilt, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown, Case-Western Reserve, Seton Hall, Emory, Virginia Tech--and the list goes on.

Thurm Safran says the collaboration is “just a positive experience.”

“They really like having us on campus because we have such a strong reputation where people always come back,” she says. “They also are exposing students to their universities. It’s a great way for university recruitment.”

There are both day camps and overnight camps offered simultaneously, with about 65 percent to 70 percent of the campers opting for the day-camp experience. Those who stay overnight live in the dorms.

“Everybody gets immersed in the college experience,” she says.

Building A Staff

One of the camps’ hallmarks is the recruitment of qualified, tech-savvy staff members--about 500 to 600 each year. Counselors generally either possess or are pursuing a degree in the area they teach, on the undergraduate or graduate level.

“We want people who are either immersed in the field or getting a degree in the field,” she says. “We want to make sure the staff we hire has a passion for making learning fun.”

Counselors also must be certified in first aid and CPR, “not just directors,” Thurm Safran adds. “If you send a child to camp, and he or she chokes at lunch, and the director’s not around, we want to make sure there’s a staff person who can administer first aid or the Heimlich maneuver.”

All staff members must attend a weekend training session that serves as a laboratory for instructional techniques as well as an opportunity to bring counselors together. “It’s a great bonding experience. We do team-building activities as well as rigorously going over what’s key for being a top-notch instructor.”

The training occurs at four sites around the country. After that, instructors can go online to Internet forums and groups to learn about the curriculum and discuss it with others.

To recruit qualified staffers, camp administrators look to the site universities, as well as to other educational institutions. Advertising on craigslist is a useful tool as well. “We have a strong base of returning staff [and] we pay better than most people in the industry,” she says.

And there are a “fair number” of campers who “can’t wait to return when they’re 18” as staff members.

The camp does not use counselors-in-training for one simple reason: “We don’t want parents sending their kids to a tech camp, where they’re learning, to be taught by someone learning how to become a staff person.”

Despite the lack of CITs, the staff-to-camper ratio remains very low, and purposefully so. There is an average of five campers per staff member, and no more than eight students per instructor in a class. That helps greatly with the camp’s “project-based” learning program.

“We want to make this an experience that’s different from most schools,” she says.

Dan Shortridge is a freelance writer and editor from Delaware. He worked for five years as an outdoor skills instructor and director at a Boy Scout summer camp in Maryland.

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