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Summer camp for young techies

Queena Kim Aug 3, 2012

Tess Vigeland: There was a time waaaaay back when I was a kid that summer camp meant tents and smores and songs by the campfire. Today we have soccer camp, volleyball camp, drama camp, and, no surprise here, thousands — make that tens of thousands — of kids are spending a chunk of the summer in front of a screen. With their parents’ blessing at tech camp.

Marketplace’s Queena Kim meet up with some of them recently in Silicon Valley.

Queena Kim: Aw…the  sounds of summer. Families getting together for barbeques. The sound of BBQ sizzling. Dogs running around.

And 9-year-old Alex  is plopped down on a lounge chair totally engrossed in his favorite iPad game, which prompts this from his dad:

Gary: Alex, lose the iPad!

Chances are, these words are being heard across the country. But a growing number of parents are taking the opposite tack. 

Instructor: And this is the course that uses x-code so…

Welcome to ID Tech Camps.  It started 13 years ago with 200 hundred campers in Silicon Valley. Today, ID Tech says it has about 23,000 campers in 25 states. One week at the camp can cost up to $1,400 — and that comes with the usual camp activities like swimming, games and nighttime pranks.

Savannah: It’s the Pac-Man sound.

Savannah is a 10th grader and was at an ID Tech camp at U.C. Berkeley, where about 70 students — ages 7 to 17 — were making video games or — like Savannah — an app for her iPod Touch.

Counsellor: And we’re going to open up your project here.

Savannah’s counsellor was teaching her how to load her app — it’s a game — onto an “iPod.”

Savannah: So if I go home, will this download on my sister’s iPod too?

I asked Savannah why she thinks tech camps are becoming more popular; she responds: “It’s the economy stupid!” 

Savannah: My parents keep telling me the economy is really bad so working on computers it makes a lot of money right now.

Kim: Wow, how old are you again?

Savannah: I’m 14.

Once upon a time, my parents told me something very similar — they tried to push me into math and science — but it just wasn’t sexy back then.

Anshul: When I was young, everyone was playing basketball or they were practicing real hard in baseball, and they were like ‘I’m going to be the next LeBron James or Barry Bonds.’

Meet Anshul, he’s 15. and he says a lots changed since he was a kid.

Anshul: As we’ve been growing older, app-creating is cool, it’s you know it’s the new thing.

And being the next-Steve Jobs or Google’s Larry Paige or Mark Zuckerberg, it’s like being a celebrity. I met Anshul at Google’s Summer Camp known as CAPE, which stands for Computer and Programing Experience. It’s one of the hottest camps around. The camp is free and campers learn the basics of computer science and get to meet Silicon Valley luminaries. This year, six hundred campers applied for 120 spots.

Ria Galanos: All right, one more minute.

Today’s day one. Thirty campers are sitting in a large conference room, making their first Android app. It’s a picture of a “kitty” and when you touch it, it meows.

Galanos : Those of you who are playing your cats, try not to do that right now.

Ria Galanos has been teaching math and computer science in Atlanta for about 10 years. She’s been teaching at Google’s Summer Camp for the last two. She says tech camps have become more popular, in part, because it’s cheaper and easier than ever to start one up.

Galanos: When I became a computer science teacher my county had to purchase software, someone had to install it on the machines.

And it was all really expensive and not very kid — or consumer — friendly. And the run-of-the-mill computer didn’t always cut it.

Gallanos: And so after you open up the browser, the website is just appinventor.mit.edu.

App Inventor is a free software that Google and MIT developed. And it lets you create an Android app in about 20 minutes. It’s a simple app — probably not the kind that’s going to make you rich — but it’s enough to spark a young techies interest. And that brings us back to Anshul, this is his second year at the camp. The game he and a fellow camper developed last summer is headed for Android app store. And he’ll start something new this summer.

 Anshul: There’s no limit to this, that’s the whole idea, that you can do more things and more things.

Unlike, Anshul’s favorite subject math.

Anshul: It’s really hard to create new things. Math started ever since the ancient Greeks, and now it’s getting to a state where it’s more and more perfected.

And Anshul says, he’s unlikely to perfect perfection. But with apps?

Anshul: With apps on the other hand, is in the age as if it was the Greeks.

Like a lot of the campers I spoke to, Anshul feels he’s at the dawn of a new era and even as a kid, he can be player.

In Silicon Valley, I’m Queena Kim for Marketplace.

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