|Computer pioneer made a lot of campers happy
|Helen Bennett Harvey,
Milford Bureau Chief
Zabinski denies he can predict the future, but he does have amazing
|Fairfield University professor Michael Zabinski created
the computer camp. Michelle Woodruff, who wasn't born when
the first camp was held, is a camp instructor. Chris Volpe/Register
Twenty four years ago, he said something so prescient, so perfectly
on target, that it boggles the mind.
"Eventually, it will become part of our daily routine to become
involved with computers," Zabinski told the Register in 1978.
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|This was three years before the introduction of the first widely-available,
consumer-friendly personal computer. At the time, Zabinski was promoting
something called a "computer camp." Kids would get together and
play with, take apart and write programs for these newfangled contraptions.
His National Computer Camps, the first of its kind in the nation,
would go a long way toward making Zabinski's prediction come true.
Zabinski, an Orange resident and professor of physics and engineering
at Fairfield University, paired children with bits, bytes and mainframes
long before the rest of the world learned that computers and kids
are a perfect match.
The camp ran at Amity Junior High School in Orange, where Zabinski
blended lectures and hands-on computer education, with (of course)
Now, having held the summer camps in cities across the country,
Zabinksi would likely need a computer program to say how many children
have passed through the program.
"It's thousands and thousands," said Zabinski, who counts his own
two children, now grown, among the campers. The camps will be held
in four states this summer, including from June 23 through Aug.
2 at Sacred Heart University. With its competitive rates of $740
a week for campers who stay overnight, the sessions draw children
from across the country, as well from local communities, Zabinski
Across New England, other types of summer camps are more popular
"by a huge margin," said Bette Bussel, executive director of the
American Camping Association of New England. However, she said,
computer camps provide a crucial niche for children with specific
"Many of the specialty camps fit the bill for certain types of children,"
she said. "You have to have the right match."
Bussel also said the trend in computer camps is for large companies
to open many sites across the country.
For Zabinski, who is president of National Computer Camps, limiting
the number of his camp sites to 4-6 each summer keeps the business
manageable, and the experience educational.
"I am an educator, first and foremost" he said.
The business is going strong despite the failure of other computer
camp programs. American Computer Experience, a Georgia-based company,
for instance, went out of business last year.
The key to the success of his camps, Zabinski says, is "delivering
exactly what we say we will do." While Zabinski employs a trained
staff of counselors, he is in on every aspect of camp.
"We know what excites kids are far as learning goes" said Zabinski,
who once wrote a series of books on computers, including "Computers
For Kids from 8 to 80." "We can do things in the summer that you
can't do during the year because of curriculum restraints."
Mary Lee Barker of Woodbridge has sent her two boys, Daniel and
Nathan Perlman, to Zabinski's camp for about six years, because
the camp creates "an ideal setting," she said. The camps cater to
kids at every level of experience, and are very focused on learning.
"Some kids go to sports camp, my kids go to computer camp," she
said. "It's an opportunity for them to be in a very well supervised
setting, doing something they love."
The camp curriculum includes five hours a day of instruction, with
options for even more time on computers or afternoon sports. Campers
are paired to offer children a chance to exchange ideas, and extensive
programming instruction is part of the core program. Game writing,
a must-have for some children, also is offered.
"Lots of kids wake up and say 'I want to write my own game,' " Zabinski
All the computers used in the camp are fast, up to date and contain
a lot of memory, because those are the elements children expect,
Zabinski said. The technology is light years ahead of the slower,
clunky machines that were around in 1978.
While computers — and their ubiquitous nature — have changed in
25 years, children in many ways have not, he said.
"They were just as curious and motivated then as they are today,"
The typical camper, Zabinski said, "is totally excited, totally
involved and totally wrapped up in computers." For those kinds of
kids, the camp also offer a chance to socialize and make friends
with like-minded children, he said.
Zabinski keeps his student to staff ratio at 8:1 or lower, typically
employing 10-12 counselors per site. Because he is cautious about
hiring, most of his counselors are former campers.
Daniel Perlman, 13, an eighth grader at Amity Junior High Bethany,
said he enjoys working with other youths interested in computers,
especially with so much help available from counselors. Another
key element, he said, is that the camp provides a network that allows
numerous campers to play games together simultaneously.
"Most of the people who go play network games," he said.