by Sharron Kahn Luttrell

Computer Camps

Jun 15, 20032 mins
Consumer Electronics

In the mid-1970s, Fairfield University professor Michael Zabinski won grants to train high school teachers to integrate computers into their curriculum. The experience got him thinking about ways to reach children directly. In 1978, he founded the nation’s first computer camp.

For two weeks that first summer, a group of children, mostly 10 to 14 year olds, gathered in a small, junior high school classroom, drawn by the opportunity to get their hands on something most kids their age had seen only on television. They learned Basic, used Wang computers and stored their work on audiocassettes. “In those days, the super, super, super majority of kids did not have a computer at home or even at school,” says Zabinski, a professor of physics and engineering. “For them, it was the mystique that attracted them to the camp.”

The following year, Zabinski acquired 24 Radio Shack TRS 80s, some with floppy drives 5.25 inches wide. Now, Zabinski runs five National Computer Camps around the nation where campers learn Assembler, Basic, C++, HTML, Java, JavaScript and XML on their pick of a 2GHz PC or Mac.

Since those days, computer camps have sprung up across the country like Web pop-up ads. Unlike traditional summer camps, which feature rustic cabins by a lake, computer camps are typically held on college campuses. Campers sleep in dorm rooms. Swimming, if offered, takes place in a pool. Technology immersion is the goal.

But there is one important similarity between computer camps and their more traditional counterparts: a chance to forge lasting friendships with kindred spirits. Children who choose to spend their free time in front of a computer tend not to be the outgoing class president or star athlete type, says Corey Marx, marketing director for Seattle-based Cybercamps. “For a lot of these kids, this is a place to meet friends who have similar interests,” namely a passion for technology.

Weekly rates for computer camps range from $600 for day camp to $1,200 for overnight programs. Kids can expect to learn Web design and multimedia gaming. Some camps offer 3-D animation and robotics. Activities might include Internet scavenger hunts. Some camps even have e-mail, though it’s not always encouraged.

“Part of the summer camp experience is about getting over homesickness,” says Craig Whiting, owner of Emagination Computer Camps. “If they’re e-mailing their parents, it will only prolong that.”