Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 25 / JUNE 1982 / PAGE 38

Guest Commentary:
Computer Camp

G. R. Boynton
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IO

This issue we feature two articles on the increasingly popular "computer camp."

For a list of upcoming computer camps, see "Learning With Computers" elsewhere in this issue.

It was the last day of our four weeks, and I had saved my sure winner for this day. It is a capital A which goes skipping across the screen from right to left. As soon as he saw it, Steve knew what he wanted and, with a little help, he produced a "banner" program which printed


across the screen a thousand times. It is a relatively simple program, but Steve is only eleven. More important than how difficult or easy the program is what it says about Steve.

Last summer the Laboratory for Political Research at the University of Iowa ran a computer camp for four groups of seven junior high school students and a few, like Steve, who were younger and one or two who were in high school. For two years we have been busy installing microcomputers in the Lab and the department of political science. In the process we have purchased seven Commodore 2001s and 37 Commodore 8037s. The 2001s were used for program development before the 8032s were available and, when we got the 8032s the 2001s became surplus. I had never had a chance to work with junior high school students, and I wanted to see what that enthusiasm and energy was like. Hence, the computer camps.

Each group met for three hours a day for four weeks. My plan was very simple. Show them a lot of tricks that one can do with a PET. Have a lot of games that they can play. And get out of their way; turn them loose with a computer and see what happens. Cursor [the monthly tape of programs from The Code Works] very graciously permitted me to use their games (I received as a subscriber) in the computer camp on an experimental basis. I helped the campers write programs for between 30 minutes and an hour each day. We concentrated on relatively simple graphics programs because that is what they really liked. And then they were free to do what they wanted to do for the remainder of their three hours.

Literacy At A Low Price

Simple graphics programming has two advantages when working with junior high students. First, it motivates. They like making graphic displays, and that can be done rather easily on Commodore computers. Second, it eases the introduction to what are otherwise rather arcane subjects.

You have to learn something about variables and constants, strings and numbers, loops and conditionals to do any programming. But, if you are going to program graphics you also have to learn something about the difference between printing and POKEing to the screen. And this involves learning something about ASCII values for representing characters. And that this is only useful if you understand something about memory where the numbers are stored. This, in turn, leads immediately to a discussion of the memory map of the PET, keyboard buffers, and other esoterica. All these topics follow naturally, in the process of learning to put graphics displays on the screen and move them around. It's computer literacy at a very low price.

By the end of four weeks, most of the students had learned enough so that they could put ideas to work. That final program which Steve responded to is a simple idea. You print something, erase it, move, and print it again. There were also several rather nice applications of this idea. Josh produced a rocket which zoomed up the screen and then came down, landing on the moon. Gus printed his goodbye to his classmates by writing each line in a fancy box on the screen, erasing it, and then writing the next line.

We did some other programming as well. We spent about a week building and using a subroutine that would break up a string into its constituent words. A fortune telling program resulted from that. And another program used the same subroutine to test knowledge of US and European capitols.

Programming is okay, but much of the appeal of the camp was the games. Cursor is a good collection of games of the most diverse types. Each student spent many hours playing these games. Fast action games were the most popular, but treasure hunt games, gambling games, and strategy games were popular as well.

My friends were having fun playing games and learning to write programs. And I learned some things about them.

One characteristic is that a majority of them charge ahead. Don't bother to read instructions. Don't bother to plan very much. Just go. The book on BASIC that they bought did not get much of a workout.

They like some very simple things. Many of the boys engaged in a very short "insult" program.

10 print "garbage head";
20 goto 10

That will print garbage head continuously across the screen until you hit the STOP key. It even has a certain graphic appeal which grows out of the normal flow of the program.

They like simple graphics. They are very enthusiastic about games. They learn to program "in use." One of my colleagues noted that his son was learning to program more like learning a language by living in another country than the way languages are learned in schools. He could do it even though he did not find it easy to talk about it.

Games and programming were going on in these computer camps. But something else was going on that I had not fully expected. Persons between the age of eleven and fifteen were busy exploring and fleshing out their "self." Steve is an eleven-year-old who is on the go. It shows up in everything he does; including his banner program.

However, in his crashing ahead he never managed to produce anything neat. Gus is different. What he managed on the last day was a very aesthetically appealing display. That is an important difference between Gus and Steve. I could see the same thing going on in each of these young individuals. They were defining themselves in what they did with the computer. And the computer is flexible enough to permit this form of self-expression.

One more thing came out of this camp. There are now 28 more people for whom the computer will be understood as a personal tool.