Tech camps for kids: Get the right fit

Flash animation or tennis? As summer camps open for business, parents need to seek out a good balance. Photos: Kids groove on tech at camp Ten cool camp choices

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
7 min read
Hello modder, hello Java. Here I blog from my own Flash-animated Web site.

The next generation of high-tech summer camps offers unique opportunities that may make adults wish they themselves could go.

The number of day camps has grown by about 90 percent in the last 20 years, according to statistics released by the American Camp Association. The ACA reports that more than 10 million children annually attend summer camp and that 12,000 day and residential camps exist in the U.S.

Tech camps, camps with a bent toward science or technology, are on the rise, with a 16 percent increase in computer camps in particular since 2000. Subjects range from human anatomy to robotics to Flash animation.

But are children better off being left to play in the dirt or in a pick-up game of basketball on their own?

It depends on the camp, the kid and their age, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

"I don't want to sound like a naturalist, but we spend a lot of time in front of the TV and computer and not exploring what we can do physically or psychologically," Hirsh-Pasek said.

tech camp

"You go to a college campus and stay on a computer all day, but then you go to tennis camp and you're outdoors, but playing tennis all day. You have to figure out what the mix is and what the specialty is and if it gives your child a well-rounded experience," she said.

Parents should use the same criteria for evaluating a good tech camp as they would for a general-interest camp, according to Ann Sheets, the national president of the ACA. The counselor/teacher ratio should be about one adult for every six children under age 10, 1 to 8 for 10- to 11-year-olds and 1 to 10 for middle school and older, she said.

Day camps that completely submerse a child in one subject, whether its Web site design or gymnastics, are fine at any age, as long as it's what both the kid and parents want, Sheets said. When it comes to residential camps, however, she recommended the average one-week length of stay for kids under middle school age.

Like Hirsch-Pasek, Sheets is a proponent of finding a camp that gets kids out and about, in addition to offering education.

"With the concern now about obesity and lack of being in the outdoors, I do think it's important for parents to remember that the summer is important for things in addition to academic prep, and to look at the whole opportunity that the summertime presents for children, regardless of age," Sheets said.

Parents who send their child to a focused-subject camp might also want to mix in a couple of weeks at a general-interest camp during the summer, she said.

But are parents and camps listening to this school of thought? Statistics show that there's a new interest in focused programs. About 71 percent of camps specialize in one or more activities. There has also been a 40 percent increase in academic camps since 2000, according to statistics from the ACA.

"Being smart for a lot of kids is a cultural issue right now. We say, if you're a geek that's great, cause guess what--the owner of Microsoft was a geek and look where he is."
--Bernard Harris, president, The Harris Foundation

One man is managing to get kids out of the classroom, while using the camp experience as a tool for combating the stigma that being smart is just not cool.

Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, is an astronaut, pilot, physician and now a venture capitalist. At The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps (BHSSC), middle school students are exposed to the sciences and math, but with a few twists.

"What we try to do is open their mind and frame of reference to give them the experience. If you know about a thing you become comfortable, whereas things that are unknown to you, we tend to be fearful of and don't want to stretch," he said. "Some kids don't know what an engineer is, that they are responsible for building all these interesting things. And so we provide an environment so they feel that it's OK to like science and to be smart."

Projects at his camps include hands-on lab work and field trips to places like NASA, the virtual-reality oil lab at Exxon Mobile (the camp's primary monetary sponsor), natural-science museums, hospital gross anatomy labs and the touring Body Worlds exhibit. The camps are free to anyone who can get in; the entry process is based on grades and teacher recommendations.

"Being smart for a lot of kids is a cultural issue right now. We say, 'If you're a geek that's great, cause guess what--the owner of Microsoft was a geek and look where he is. I was a geek and look where I am,'" Harris said.

Lauren Polk, now a speech pathology major at Texas Southern University and a lead daytime counselor for the BHSSC, University of Houston branch, attended the same camp before her eighth grade year.

"The camp taught me that it doesn't matter who you are when it comes to science," Polk said. "I didn't associate a camp like that with someone like me because most people think that it's for a smarter group of kids...It wasn't a gender thing at all, but most of the kids that went to camp were in honors courses. I was not in an honors program. When I got there it opened me up a whole lot," she said.

Camps that offer middle and high school students a place to learn that being smart is OK, not only validates them, but teaches them the real-world lesson about smart people in our society, according to Temple University's Hirsh-Pasek.

"It tells them, 'How cool. You know in the future what we call a nerd? Boss,'" she said.

Sheets said that because many of the tech camps are based on college campuses, they also serve as a good platform for older kids who are looking ahead toward college.

Others think that specialty camps can help, not just middle school and high school students, but children of all ages excel in school.

"It tells (kids), 'How cool. You know in the future what we call a nerd? Boss,'"
--Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, psychology professor, Temple University

Cybercamps by GiantCampus, for campers ages 7 to 18, was the subject of an independent research study by doctoral candidate Michelle O'Brien-Palmer, who compared Cybercamps' curriculum to a control group within a school setting.

She found that the Cybercamps kids scored up to 90 percent higher on their standardized tests than the kids who did not attend Cybercamps.

"Parents appreciate that the kids are going to have fun, and it's summer camp, but academically, they are being better prepared when they come from Cybercamps, and that's a (worthy) investment in them," said David Kinard, director of marketing for Cybercamps.

Cybercamps is broken into four key areas. One of the camps, Livewire, includes a stay and a behind-the-scenes look at Disney World.

The residential or day camp programs, which can range from $700 to $1,000 per week, provide everything from digital still and film cameras and computers, to hosted server space so kids can continue to work on their creations from the Web throughout the year with a log-in and password.

"People take a week in Web design, a week of Flash animation and then a week of something else. By the end of the three weeks, the kids could have a Web site with a video game and Flash animation that they built," Kinard said.

Robotics classes include Lego Mindstorms and Vex, using different programming languages. Students taking game design and game "modding" (taking existing games and customizing them) use Torque Game Engine, Macromedia Flash and Multimedia Fusion. Some camps have a special-effects class in which kids get to use a green screen to put themselves in a Star Wars film with a light saber. Other courses are offered in video production, Web design and 3D modeling.

Cybercamps has about 50 public camps on campuses around the U.S., including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University and Stanford University, and about 18 private camps contracted for children of people from Fortune 500 companies, the military or school districts.

"It's not just everyone sitting in front of the computer until the wee hours of the morning by themselves," Kinard said. "We are getting them out of their bedrooms and basement and getting them to play in a social environment, which is a huge plus."

While Hirsch-Pasek likes the idea of this kind of camp for older kids, she's not sure of its benefit to the average 7-year-old.

"Children, if they get to middle and high school and have something they're really proud of and a skill set that they know is a little different, then fostering that is great. But for the little guys, I'm still a generalist," she said.

While many of these high-tech camps fill up in February through April, there are still spaces available at some of them, according to Sheets and camp leaders. The ACA offers a Web site where parents can get a list of accredited summer camps by typing in their area.