Connecticut’s County Kids
Magazine May 2003

Kids Camp At Keyboards

Where can a youngster learn the Internet, write a computer program, create a graphic video, take apart a computer, design a home page, play tennis, try the game Civilization and make new friends?

The answer is at the National Computer Camp at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Computer camp is the brainchild of Michael Zabinski, Ph.D. professor of Physics and Engineering at Fairfield University, who in 1977 established the first of these educational summer camps coining the phrase “computer camps”. Launched in small junior high classroom in Orange by Zabinski, NCC is this year celebrating its 26th anniversary. In a bold prediction in a 1977 newspaper article about his camp Zabinski stated, “Eventually, it will become part of our daily routine to become involved with computers. Computers were indeed a natural around which to design a summer camp for youngsters,” said Zabinski.

These days the program involves 1,100 campers at five sites, including Sacred heart University in Fairfield; other locations are in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Francisco. Zabinksi 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.

Zabinski considers his camp as the first of its kind. “Back then in 1978 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 camps have now become quite sophisticated.

The daily camp curriculum includes at least five hours devoted to computers, though campers may elect to spend up to 12 hours on their computers. Campers can also decide to play tennis and kickball or participate in a chess or checkers tournament. Residential campers stay in college dorms. A day program is also available and day campers may take advantage of an extended day.

Campers may sign up for one or more weeks during June and July. The coed campers, ages 8-18, enjoy small group instruction on PC and Mac computers for ample “hands-on”. The camp is ideal for first time campers as well as experienced campers.

The majority of the staff and counselors are ex-campers who have been associated with the camp for many years first as campers and then as counselors. These college students are wonderful role models for the campers. In addition, some staff positions are held by elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators. The teachers skillfully administer the camp’s philosophy of motivating campers by presenting lessons in exciting ways with examples the campers can relate to and identify with. The camper to staff ration is 6-1.

The primary focus of NCC is computer programming and software applications including networking, web animation, Flash and graphics. An optional sports program is also available. Each week all levels of programming in Basic, C++, Java, Assembler, HTML, XML, Open GL and JavaScript are offered. Campers may attend one or multi-week sessions with a continuous curriculum that is age appropriate and suitable for beginners to super advanced.

Campers work on state-of-the art personal computers and design their own Web sites and computer games. “Our goal has always been to stimulate the campers’ interest and talents in computers. The kinds of things our campers are now doing are mind-boggling. Last summer, Daniel Perelman, 13, designed a checkers game. “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 Daniel, of Woodbridge. May campers who attended camp years ago still keep in touch with Zabinski. Today they are professionals in the computer field and like to reminisce about NCC. “These days I’m head programmer for an international software company that does C++ programming,” says Curtis Hartung of Atlanta. Chris Lillios, who was a camper in 1978, is an independent computer software consultant in Palo Alto, Calif. He 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.

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