No nerds here: Computer camps give kids a technological outlet

Technology camps are springing up all over, and computer-savvy kids are asking their parents to sign them up. But get ready to blow up any stereotypes you might have of pale children sitting in front of computer screens, totally disconnected from the real world. A well-chosen technology camp offers kids a chance to discover what is going on behind the screens and gives them a chance to leap ahead in the real worlds of technology and life.

Take iD Tech Camps, where there’s nothing nerdy about technology for the kids who attend weeklong day and overnight camps with courses in everything from game design and modding (modifying) to web design, robotics, and programming. Touted as the number-one tech camp in the nation, this summer marks iD’s sixth year in Minnesota and second at Macalester College where they offer seven, one-week sessions for boys and girls age 7–17.

The air is electric from the moment parents drop their kids off at iD Tech Camp. Returning campers catch up with old friends and shout hellos to their favorite instructors. New campers look around, excited to learn about technology yet anxious about making friends and unsure of what the week ahead holds for them.

Their worries ease when they meet their instructors like camp director Drew "Ansel" Retherford and Cate "Danger Cat" Hutson. Decidedly cool with their special camp names and brains full of technical knowledge, each instructor is multitalented, well-rounded, and shares a common goal to create a positive, fun learning environment for the week ahead. Right away, Ansel, Danger Cat, and the other instructors help everyone figure out where things are and get to know each other. Anxious feelings are replaced with excitement as campers settle in and start to talk about their mutual interest in technology. Soon campers are making connections and forming friendships that will carry them through the week and, in many cases, last for years to come.

There are several girls at camp, like first-year camper Jessica Hankes, a 13-year-old from Edina, but the majority of the kids are boys. Some are computer gurus, others have never delved into the inner workings of technology before. Many come because they love computer games and want to learn how to create them. Others want to learn programming or video editing, and a few are there because their parents signed them up in hopes of giving them an edge in the technological world. And while learning about technology is key, the instructors recognize that a camp merely focused on technology would be greatly lacking in two key elements of a great camp experience: making friends and having fun.

With an average ratio of six campers to one instructor, each camper gets a lot of attention as they work their way through the self-paced, project-based curriculum during lab time each morning. The instructors, all 18 and older, are well-versed in the material they teach, work with students one-on-one as needed, and make sure the campers get frequent screen breaks throughout the morning. Instructors encourage the kids to work together to solve problems they may encounter in their projects. Working together not only gets the kids talking with each other, Ansel says, "it also gets them to problem-solve, which is a skill that a lot of the kids who like computers don’t have."

After a morning of classroom fun and technical skill building, campers break for lunch. Afternoon is game time, and most of it is spent outside, playing games like Capture-the-Flag, soccer, and Frisbee. Before the campers head for home, they gather for a "shout out," when instructors recognize kids who have done something well that day and campers have the opportunity to acknowledge each other as well. Then, day campers leave for home and overnight campers enjoy more recreation, dinner, and still more fun before lights out.

Each day brings new excitement as campers share their progress and get to know each other better. By the end of the week, they’ve not only gained new technological skills, they’ve also gained confidence, learned how to work together, and made new friends.

"I’ve made so many friends here, it’s unbelievable," says Cameron Erickson, a 15-year-old from Eagan who first attended iD Tech Camp in 2006. "It’s easier to get to know people at camp than at school," Cameron adds, because, "you all do the same things, and it’s really cool because you have a lot in common with everyone."

This common bond and the joy of learning something new and fun is what keeps campers like Cameron coming back year after year. It’s what prompts others, like Max Vandervelde, a senior from St. Anthony, to consider coming back as an instructor so he can share his knowledge. And while instructors, campers, and parents are excited that almost all iD Tech alumni go on to college and many pursue technological careers, it’s the confidence gained, connections made, and friendships formed that matter most.

Myrna CG Mibus is a freelance writer in Webster, Minn.

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