Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 46 / MARCH 1984 / PAGE 132


New Directions For Computer Camps

Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor

I thought that this camp would be about programming. I didn't know that it would be so much fun!

Ashley Bell, age 8

Ashley was one of the youngest campers at the Computer FUNdamentals camp at Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia, last summer. Her comments reflect the kind of computer activities she participated in at the camp. However, if she had gone to another camp, she might have learned about computers in a completely different way.

The Changing Face Of Computer Camps

Most educators agree that the first computer camp was organized by Dr. Michael Zabinski in Connecticut, in 1978. Now, six years later, Zabinski's organization offers five camps annually, in locations from Simsbury, Connecticut, to Portland, Oregon. In addition to Zabinski's camps there are hundreds of other computer camps throughout the U.S.

The first camps were mostly attended by boys. The boys studied "hard-core" computer subjects like BASIC programming, computer hardware, and hooking up different devices to computers. Compared to today's models, the computers at the first camps were primitive. They consisted of early Apple computers, TRS-80 (Model I's), Commodore PETs, and other computers whose names we have all but forgotten.

Fred D'lgnazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Duttonl Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).

As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.

Today's campers enter a new world filled with the latest personal computers and peripheral devices such as speech synthesizers, graphics pads, light pens, and robots. They study a variety of subjects, including the impact of computers on society, computers for handicapped people, and computers in the arts and humanities.

Today, girls represent a much larger proportion of the campers. In some camps, they number as many as a third.

At most camps you will also see a few campers who have some sort of mental or physical disability. Campers in wheelchairs are a common sight at many camps.

So are adults. The newest computer camps cater to both youngsters and oldsters. In fact, it's predicted that many of the most avid campers in 1984 will be men and women in their 60s and 70s.

How To Choose A Computer Camp

There are hundreds of computer camps to choose from, each with its own philosophy and personality. And you can find the right one for you, if you look hard enough.

The first thing you should look at is the type of camp. Is it sponsored locally or nationally? Is it for children, adults, or both? Do the counselors concentrate on programming or on computer literacy and applications? Is the camp residential or a day camp?

There are benefits and drawbacks associated with each type of camp. For example, if a camp is locally sponsored, it may be more suited to the needs of the people in your community. But local sponsorship doesn't necessarily mean high-quality sponsorship. Generally speaking, the best local computer camps are affiliated with a com-munity college or university.

Residential computer camps are nice because they take the children away from home for a week or two of fun, physical exercise, and computer instruction. But some educators feel that residential camps are a fad. Their outdoor activities are often an afterthought, and the camps cannot compare, in terms of staff, program, or facilities, to the regular summer camps, which, on their ownare beginning to offer computer activities. Also, residential camps are expensive and relatively inefficient if your main goal is to introduce your child to computers.

Campers draw on each other's skills and interests to program a computer. Courtesy of Computer FUNdamentals Camp. (Photo by Walker Healy, Jr.)

In the past, most computer camps were for kids. Now adult camps are springing up all over the country.

Many families send their kids to computer camp so they can come back and tell the family which computer to buy. But why let your kids have all the fun? Why not attend computer camp at the same time as your son or daughter? Then you and your kids can decide together which computer is right for the family.

New "mixed-age" camp classes are springing up that include people of all ages. Being in a class with several bright youngsters can be unnerving, but it can also add a new dimension to your computing. Kids approach computers as explorers. By imitating them you can begin computing fearlessly and playfully.

The Need For Continuing Support

The best computer camps offer a balanced approach—some computer programming and some computer activities. But beware. If you get your child started in either side of computing, his or her appetite for more computing is liable to increase. When you look for a computer camp you should try to find one that will be around to satisfy your and your child's computing interests no matter how sophisticated they become.

Dr. Zabinski, for example, believes that computer camps "breed kids who are sophisticated with computers, so they can't just drop them." His camps emphasize programming as opposed to computer activities. "We train the youngsters in computers, so it is our responsibility to be around when they become more sophisticated and need more advanced training."

Zabinski's philosophy is "to motivate kids and excite them with examples they can relate to and identify with." His camps have been so popular and successful that he and his staff have to revamp their curriculum each year just to keep up with the kids they trained the previous year.

According to Zabinski, "We used to be content teaching kids to program in BASIC and Pascal. Now I feel that teaching new programming languages is just moving sideways. We can't afford to move sideways. Kids can master new languages in just a couple of weeks. Our objective in 1984 is to teach kids how to interface computers with each other and how to interface computers with other machines. We'll teach kids how to create their own computer languages, and how to use modems and bulletin boards and get computers communicating over the telephone."

Zabinski emphasizes that his highly technical curriculum is not aimed at just teenagers and older children. "Take nine-year-olds," he says. "Nine and ten-year-olds are not what they used to be. We have one nine-year-old who learned Assembler and won a national Assembler Language contest on the TRS-80 computer.

"There are plenty of sophisticated kids at all ages," contends Zabinski. "Computer camps are often these kids' only outlet. We've helped to create these kids, so we have to be ready when they come back to us each year. We can't abandon them."

Computer FUNdamentals

Nancy Healy and Dr. Barbara Kurshan run the Computer FUNdamentals Camp at Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia. Kurshan and Healy agree with Zabinski that computer camps need to keep upgrading their curriculum to keep up with the newest computers and the increasing sophistication of the average camper. But Kurshan and Healy stress computer applications as opposed to computer programming. And, above all, they want their campers to have fun.

According to Healy, "What makes our camp different is that it is oriented toward fun, and, at the same time, the kids become good computer users. Also, we don't mix physical activities and computer instruction. This lets our handicapped campers do everything that all the other kids do.

"Another reason our camp is different," Healy continues, "is that our camp isn't just for math and science freaks. Kids who love music and the arts are equally interested and involved.

"After the first few days at camp, it is easy to see who knows what. The 'knowers' are those who attract people around them. But the great thing is that each child brings a different skill with him, like typing, music, art, programming, or math. The kids work together and draw on each other's skills and interests. That way everybody gets a chance to shine."

The Computer That Ate Manhattan

Like their counterparts at other camps, computer campers at Hollins spent most of their time last summer using real computers as electronic notebooks, typewriters, telephones, libraries, and mailboxes. But camp counselors also encouraged the children to spend time inventing totally new fantasy computers. Children described these computers and what things they could do. One boy, for example, made up a story about a computer that ate Manhattan.

One of the big projects during the camp was for the children to build their own junk computers. The children designed and built the junk computers out of all kinds of things, including buttons, wires, beads, tupperware, TV sets, and aluminum foil. One boy built a computer out of a nonworking TV set and a working walkie-talkie. The boy hid the walkie-talkie inside the TV set. Another boy built a junk computer that played beach music. The cardboard computer had a tape recorder hidden inside.

A local elementary school PTA in Roanoke sent two children to the camp on scholarships. The children were to learn as much as possible about computers during camp so they could help their teachers use the school's two new computers the following fall. The children, one 10 and the other 11, were chosen on the basis of an essay on why they wanted to go to computer camp. They wrote down everything they learned at camp in a spiral notebook, and were among the camp's most conscientious students.

Training A Future Sally Ride

While the camp was in progress at Hollins, America was glued to the TV set watching its first female astronaut, Sally Ride, blast off the earth in the Space Shuttle. This inspired the kids to create a computer-controlled rocket launching at camp.

The rocket was finally launched on the same day that Sally and her teammates brought the real Shuttle back to the earth. It even featured a computer-screen simulation of the rocket taking off and a speech synthesizer, in robot nasal monotone, doing the countdown: 5…4…3…2…1 … IGNITION!

In honor of Sally Ride, the girl campers got to operate the computer to control the rocket launch.

Computer mania at the National Computer Camps. Courtesy of National Computer Camps. (Photo by Walker Healy, Jr.)

And the local TV station in Roanoke was so excited by this project that they filmed the rocket launch and, on the evening news, mixed the tape with a film of the real Space Shuttle take-off.

Computer Camp Resources

If you're interested in learning more about computer camps, you might want to send for The Computer Camp Book. It's a complete guide to computer camps and features a national directory of computer camps. The book is available for $12.95 from

The Computer Camp Book
P.O. Box 292
Yellow Springs, OH 45387

For an additional $4, you can get a copy of an updated directory of computer camps.

Two of the leading computer camps in the U.S. are the Atari Computer Camps and the National Computer Camps. You can learn more about them by writing:

Dr. Linda Gordon
Atari Computer Camps Director
Dept. AL
40 E. 34th Street
New York, NY 10012

Dr. Michael Zabinski,
National Computer Camps
P.O. Box 585
Orange, CT 06477

You can learn more about the Hollins College Computer FUNdamentals Camp by writing:

Dr. Barbara Kurshan
Nancy Healy
Computer FUNdamentals Camp
Hollins College
Hollins, VA 24020

To find out more about the Hollins camp's robot mascot, you can write: Bill Glass

Harvard Associates, Inc.
260 Beacon Street
Somerville, MA 02143