Wanted: Digital Kids

One of the main attractions for campers is the cutting-edge technology on hand: computers, video cameras and robotics equipment. Each camper has his or her own computer.

How do the camps get all these goodies? The answer is long-standing relationships with corporate partners, which also offer discounts on hardware and software to campers who want to use the products at home after the summer ends. Adobe, Apple, Cannon, Hewlett-Packard, Logitech, Microsoft, Symantec, Wacom are involved in the iD Tech Camp programs. “They are very eager to work with us,” says Thurm Safran.

“Some of them come to us because we are the leaders in technology camps. They want to work with us and get involved in raising the bar in technology education, and getting kids using their products and being in the forefront of technology.”

The camps are located throughout the country, all on college or university campuses. The prestigious names include UCLA, Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill, Columbia, Vassar, Vanderbilt, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown, Case-Western Reserve, Seton Hall, Emory, Virginia Tech–and the list goes on.

Thurm Safran says the collaboration is “just a positive experience.”

“They really like having us on campus because we have such a strong reputation where people always come back,” she says. “They also are exposing students to their universities. It’s a great way for university recruitment.”

There are both day camps and overnight camps offered simultaneously, with about 65 percent to 70 percent of the campers opting for the day-camp experience. Those who stay overnight live in the dorms.

“Everybody gets immersed in the college experience,” she says.

Building A Staff

One of the camps’ hallmarks is the recruitment of qualified, tech-savvy staff members–about 500 to 600 each year. Counselors generally either possess or are pursuing a degree in the area they teach, on the undergraduate or graduate level.

“We want people who are either immersed in the field or getting a degree in the field,” she says. “We want to make sure the staff we hire has a passion for making learning fun.”

Counselors also must be certified in first aid and CPR, “not just directors,” Thurm Safran adds. “If you send a child to camp, and he or she chokes at lunch, and the director’s not around, we want to make sure there’s a staff person who can administer first aid or the Heimlich maneuver.”

All staff members must attend a weekend training session that serves as a laboratory for instructional techniques as well as an opportunity to bring counselors together. “It’s a great bonding experience. We do team-building activities as well as rigorously going over what’s key for being a top-notch instructor.”

The training occurs at four sites around the country. After that, instructors can go online to Internet forums and groups to learn about the curriculum and discuss it with others.

To recruit qualified staffers, camp administrators look to the site universities, as well as to other educational institutions. Advertising on craigslist is a useful tool as well. “We have a strong base of returning staff [and] we pay better than most people in the industry,” she says.

And there are a “fair number” of campers who “can’t wait to return when they’re 18” as staff members.

The camp does not use counselors-in-training for one simple reason: “We don’t want parents sending their kids to a tech camp, where they’re learning, to be taught by someone learning how to become a staff person.”

Despite the lack of CITs, the staff-to-camper ratio remains very low, and purposefully so. There is an average of five campers per staff member, and no more than eight students per instructor in a class. That helps greatly with the camp’s “project-based” learning program.

“We want to make this an experience that’s different from most schools,” she says.

Dan Shortridge is a freelance writer and editor from Delaware. He worked for five years as an outdoor skills instructor and director at a Boy Scout summer camp in Maryland.

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