Cool at Computer Camp
Weizel, Globe Correspondent
FAIRFIELD, Conn. - When
Chris Lillios joined two dozen other curious-but-skeptical youngsters
at the first summer National Computer Camp 25 years ago he recalls
wondering ''whether it was cool or I was just some 13-year-old
Today, Lillios is an independent computer software
consultant in Palo Alto, Calif., who credits his three summers
at National Computer Camp with helping him find his niche in life.
''My father thought computers were just a phase that would pass,
but we had a feeling we might be part of something pretty unique,''
said Lillios, 38.
This past week marked the end of another
summer session of National Computer Camp, launched in a small
junior high classroom by Fairfield University professor Michael
Zabinski, who made what sounded like a bold prediction in a 1978
newspaper article about his camp: ''Eventually, it will become
part of our daily routine to become involved with computers,''
he said. That was three years before the first personal computer
was made widely available to consumers, Zabinski said.
days the program involves 1,100 campers at four sites, including
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, and remains one of about
a dozen summer computer camps in New England. It's among fewer
than 100 across the country solely devoted to computers, according
to the American Camping Association of New England, in Natick,
which accredits summer camps and educates camp professionals.
wouldn't call myself a prophet or anything like that, but I did
always believe computers would become a major part of our daily
existence, and that it was a natural around which to design a
summer camp for youngsters,'' said Zabinski, a professor of physics
In the early days, students worked on computers
that didn't have hard drives, and were forced to save their programs
on cassettes that often lost material.
Lillios, who has
an undergraduate degree from Princeton in electrical engineering
and computer science, and a master's in electrical engineering
from Stanford University, remembers attending the first summer
session in 1978 and ''being completely astonished when we were
able to design a simple video-type game at the computer camp.
I can just imagine what they're doing now.''
work on state-of-the art personal computers or their own laptops
to learn college-level computer programming and design their own
Web sites and computer games.
''Our goal has always been
to stimulate or foster campers' interest and talents in computers,
but today we can obviously provide a much more sophisticated environment
that more closely equates to a university or college course,''
Zabinski said. ''The kinds of things our campers are now doing
are mind-boggling compared to what they were able to do in the
Last summer, Daniel Perelman, 13, designed
a checkers game. This year, he tried a tougher one based on the
''I've been using computers since I was
2 or 3 years old, and it's my favorite thing to do. I couldn't
imagine doing anything else over the summer,'' said Perelman,
of Woodbridge, Conn.
Daniel's mother, Mary Lee Barker, has
sent Daniel and his older brother Nathan to National Computer
Camp the past few years. ''They aren't interested in the outdoor
sports, but they have always loved computers,'' she said.
Bussel, executive director of the American Camping Association
of New England, said that although general-interest camps that
offer a range of indoor and outdoor activities remain the most
popular, camps such as the National Computer Camp provide an alternative
for youngsters with more specialized interests. ''To have lasted
25 years and still be thriving proves the camp is still meeting
the needs of their campers and providing them with the kinds of
programs that are rare to find,'' Bussel said.
got the idea for a computer camp after the National Science Foundation
gave him a grant in 1977 to teach computer training to secondary-school
teachers. ''I felt it would be nice to reach young people directly,''
said Zabinski, who estimates that more than 25,000 campers have
attended the computer camp summer sessions. In addition to the
one in Fairfield, there are camps in Atlanta, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
promotes his camp as the first of its kind. ''Back then we were
the only ones doing it in a summer camp setting and nobody had
ever done it before, so we were in uncharted territory,'' he said.
''But over the years with the incredible advances in computer
technology, such as the Internet, our campers are designing far
more sophisticated programs.''
The daily camp curriculum
includes at least five hours devoted to computers, though campers
spend up to 12 hours on their computers. But they also play tennis
and kickball or read and watch movies in the afternoon. The typical
camper stays for weekly or two-week sessions, which cost $740
per week, rooming in college dorms. The camper-counselor ratio
is about 6-1, Zabinski said.
On a recent morning more than
50 campers were busy clicking away on screens and jumping up excitedly
whenever they successfully navigated a new computer program and
designed a game or Web site that worked.
David Still, a
15-year-old from Larchmont, N.Y., said he will have ''a big headstart
on the Java programming I am planning to take in school'' when
he starts a private high school in the fall. ''This camp was exactly
what I was looking for,'' said Still, who wants to be a computer
programmer. ''And it was great being around other kids who were
as excited to be around computers as I am.''
story ran on page B9 of the Boston Globe on 8/4/2002.
© Copyright 2002
Globe Newspaper Company.