Report from the Old West
On a bright and sunny day in August ANTIC paid a visit to Camp Atari - Old West, 40 miles east of San Francisco on the slopes of Mt. Diablo. Old West is just one of the seven Atari-sponsored camps held this summer, and is located on the 120-acre campus of the Athenian School near Danville, California.
Don and Marlene Applebaum, the camp's resident directors, both teach school in New Jersey, and have fifteen years experience as professional camp directors.
From June 25th to August 19 about 96 campers were admitted to each two-week session of the Atari camps. Campers pay $890 for a session and $425 for each additional week. For those who plan to stay the entire eight weeks the cost is $2,999. The other six camp sites are New England (Massachusetts), Poconos (Pennsylvania), Chesapeake (Baltimore), Smokey Mountains (North Carolina), Midwest (Minnesota), and Pacific (San Diego, California).
Last year there were just three camps, and next year Atari expects to offer three more sites for a total of ten camps. The average enrollment at the Danville camp fluctuated from 45 to 6O, while the number of kids who wanted to attend the Poconos site doubled from 80 last year to 160 this year. The Applebaums attribute the difference to the fact that "summer camp" is more traditionally an east coast experience and California has more outdoor living available all year long.
"We're lucky to have an exceptional staff," said Marlene. "We've worked at many other camps with bright kids, but here all the kids are very bright. Most of the counselors are bright, too, and we need that, especially the ones who are computer and engineering students. They usually know what they're doing and what to do with the kids.
"We've had very few discipline problems. These children are above average in almost all respects," she added. Not unlike the rest of the population involved with computers, most campers are boys. Only children ages 10 to 16 are admitted to the camp, and one out of five campers is a girl.
"We had a family group here for the first two weeks, and the sister was rather cutesy. She did fine on computers said Marlene, "but she showered and changed 20 times a day, too. Many of the girls are more well-rounded than that, and are involved with sports or music or other activities."
The weekday schedule for campers is packed with activity that includes a mixture of different experiences. For example, a typical daytime schedule would be as follows:
9:00-10:25 a.m. Computer Instruction
12:00- 1:55 Lunch - Rest Hour
2:00- 2:55 Computer Workshop
3:00- 3:35 Free Swim
4:00- 5:25 Softball
Each day varies, of course, and the evening schedule includes dinner and some planned activity or computer "free time". Other daytime activities include arts and crafts, music, aerobics, electronic workshop, hiking, soccer, volleyball, swimming, and laundry hour.
In the evenings campers can attend the movies (shown on the grounds), or take trips to town for bowling or roller skating.
Once a week on banquet night a special guest speaker, usually a computer game designer/programmer, appears to talk about his work. The week before our visit, Chris Crawford, author of Atari's Eastern Front, talked about his programming experience and his new games, soon to be released, called Gossip and Excalibur. The day we visited the camp, Vince Wu, designer of the famous Donkey Kong arcade game,was schedualed to speak.
The classrooms, of course, are the major attractions of the camp, and the campers are allowed a total of four and a half hours at the computers each day. Formal instruction and programming time is set up for two sessions per day. During "free time" in the evenings(7:00 to 8:30), at least two of the three computer rooms are open for students either to play games or practice programming.
These computer classrooms are equipped with $1 million of equipment, and there are three classrooms with 12 ATARI computer systems each. At maximum enrollment there are two students per computer. The students are divided into separate work groups according to interest and ability level.
Jim Brown, one of the instructors of computer education, issues a simple questionnaire to each new camper to determine their level of computer knowledge. "If they already have done some programming, we ask them to briefly explain their programs to us," he said. "We also ask them what they're interested in."
Several kids have wanted to know more about Logo and Forth, which aren't offered in the instruction curriculum, but Jim directs them to the additional materials in the extensive library of software and books. Also, an on-site expert, trained at Atari, is available to help the campers work on any project they choose.
"We get kids who come here for two weeks whose parents say, you're going there whether you like it or not,"' he said. "But after five days or so we can usually change any bad attitude. It usually turns out to be a very successful experience for them, a very positive experience."
The campers were working on an assignment when we visited a morning class of an intermediate BASIC group. Each student had been given a programming assignment to be completed by the end of the afternoon session.
Tamara Ghandour, 10, of Piedmont, California, was writing graphics-character code in BASIC. Her program showed a street scene with a building, a pedestrian and a moving car. She told us that her family owns an ATARI at home and that she and her younger sister use it. She seemed quite happy with the work and was confident she could complete her assignment by the end of the day.
Rick Bowers, 15, of South San Francisco, California, had no experience on computers before he came.
"My dad said it would be fun," he said "and I really wanted to come. He said he feels comfortable with computers now. We asked him if he wanted to become a game programmer.
"Not really, said Rick. "I plan to take over in my dad's machine shop. He works a lot of computers, so it will be useful."
Several of the campers, including Rick, told me that they use their evening "free time" with the computers almost every time the classrooms are open. "Usually, the first week they get here they're really into games, said Marlene, the camp's director. "They want to get into all the fantastic software we have in our library. By the second week you see them change around.
"After that there will be just one class for games and two for programming," She continued.
In the second classroom we visited campers who were learning Advanced BASIC and PILOT. Dan Zimmerman, the instructor in that class, told us that they were field-testing the new Atari PILOT in disk form.
According to Dan, he's taught beginners that "essentially started from scratch. Some of them had typed in programs, but did not understand what they were typing. But now they're designing their own programs, including sound and graphics and doing quite well. But they're still suffering the same frustrations as most any programmer."
Then we visited the advanced group, those who have designed programs before, or want to use assembly language, or learn more about electronics. Jeff Cathers, who is an electrical engineering major in college and is the "expert" from Atari, supervised these advanced students. One of the campers was so far advanced that Jeff assigned him projects that might be given to a professional programmer. He gave him a spec sheet and a deadline just as a paid programmer under contract would receive.
Jeff Cathers is just one of the 19 counselors who assist Jim Brown and the Applebaums. Brown and Zimmerman are math and computer science instructors in junior high schools during the school year. They are assisted in the classrooms by five college students who major in computer science and engineering. Most counselors are between ages 19 and 21, except for the 28-year-old swimming instructor who regularly works for the Athenian School.
Karen Horowitz, 19, one ofthe counselors, attends the Fashion Institute of Technology, and supervises the arts and crafts activity.
Karen also showed us how some of the girls had created patterns on the ATARI and later transferred the design onto a weaving loom. Snapshots of the computer screen were taken and copied into the woven pattern.
Most of the campers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and quite a number of them have elected to extend their stay. The accomodations are less rugged than many camps; the students stay in the dormitories of the Athenian School, which house academic students during the regular school year.
When they're not dining or computing, the campers have many other activities to choose. Swimmers have an Olympic-sized pool, and an official Red Cross water-safety course is offered. A huge gym for basketball is available.
"We also had a whole group playing Dungeons and Dragons" said Marlene. "Not on the computer, but the original game. One of the counselors really knows that game and played Dungeon-master. I think that goes along with the kind of child who comes here."
When we talked to Jim and the kids in the classrooms, we found that most of them were California residents, particularly from the San Francisco Bay Area.
"But we also have six brothers and cousins from France and Spain who are over here for the whole eight weeks," Jim said. "We have someone from Texas here now, and last session we had kids from Hong Kong and Australia."
According to the directors, several campers want to stay longer because "they're having a good time . . . and they want to finish a project they've started." Quite a few say they want to come back next year.