Observations from a computer camp

I am observing two summer programming camps last week and this week.  The camps are advertised as game programming for Android and iOS devices.  It is being taught by a prof from the local university CS department.  I like the instructor personally and he really knows his stuff as a programmer but as a teacher of middle school and high school kids I think there is a disconnect.

The first week (6 hour days) is for grades 6 – 8 and uses TouchDevelop and the second week (3 hour days) is grades 9 – 12 and uses AppInventor, HTML5, Java and C#/XNA.  For both weeks it is read and follow a tutorial.  Not much discussion or conversation, and lots of cut and paste.  With the kids that are there it works because they are all computer geeks but it is not something that would interest a mainstream kid.  Out of the 25 kids in the middle school group, only 2 were girls and one was the daughter of the instructor.  The high school camp was only 10 kids on purpose.  No girls in the high school group and I could see nothing in the teaching method that would attract a girl.  I have to rate the camp as a grass growing camp, as exciting as watching grass grow.

I cannot really complain too much because at least something is being offered and I am really not involved with the course.  A lot cannot really be done in a week if starting from scratch as some of the kids were but I still think learning how to cut and paste is not a programming camp.  Four different languages in the high school camp gives the kids no time to really build anything.

Maybe this is the way programming camps are supposed to be, after all, I have a sample of one.  It just seems that there is a better, more exciting way to do it.  Both camps were pure coding, no game concept or design, no discussion of games the kids like and why they like them, no discussion on games at all, hardly any conversation at all.

Next year I have to get involved with this camp.  I think with Corona I can juice this up quite a bit.  In a week I can get the kids installing a game they wrote (maybe not from scratch but pretty close to) on their Android smart phones.  The Good Idea Fairy is going to bite again.

There were some interesting asides I did learn by sitting in on these camps.  Room arrangement was one.  The 21 inch computer monitors were in rows facing the front of the room where the projector screen was.  Do you know what a smallish 6th grader can see from that position?  He has to stand up to see what is going on up front which he is not going to do so he sort of peeks through the cracks.  Does the instructor have the slightest idea what that same 6th grader is doing on his computer while the instructor is talking at the front of the room?  I was observing from the back of the room.  They can’t do much listening while playing Minecraft.  The instructor did not have much say about how the furniture was arranged but it is something to consider for the future.

Another thing is let the kids play games and see what they like.  Initially there were about 25 different games being played but in about 15 minutes I would say at least half the 25 were on Minecraft.  I need to get one of my students to show me the ins and outs of that game.  I am not a gamer and I am finding this a big handicap for teaching game programming.

Some software to project student computers would be nice.  Being able to show the rest of the group what the kids have done would be slick.  There is software to do this but it is not cheap and the free ones are worth what is paid.  I have to research this some more.

I think this computer camp has merit.  The time crunch would seem to be the big issue, how much can be done in a week or whatever.  I also think the camp has to have more of a finished product at the end.  The kid should have something they can show Mom and Dad and, more importantly, siblings and friends that is half way cool even to a non-geek.  If I work diligently for the next eleven months I might be able to come up with something of a camp to meet these criteria.

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3 Responses to “Observations from a computer camp”

  1. geekymom Says:

    I have several students (girls) who have been to these kinds of camps. They say they learn something despite the unfriendly atmosphere. I teach Middle School, and if I were doing a game design camp, I would use Scratch or GameStar Mechanic. No, they won’t export to a phone, but you can make something useable.

    Another option for Middle School is Game Salad, which doesn’t have coding, but you can focus on design and there’s definitely logic involved, so you are getting concepts. Those games export to phones.

    For high school, I agree, I’d stick with one language. You could do AppInventor in high school. Or, I’d say you could work with HTML5.

    For Minecraft stuff, check out Minecraft EDU. You can create mods for minecraft, which might be another option for either group. And boys and girls tend to like minecraft.

    As for the arrangement of computers. The first thing I did when I started was have the computer arrayed against the wall so that I can see the screens (and so can everyone else). When I need to show something, they can swivel around and see me.

  2. Garth Says:

    I will have to look at GameStar. All my labs are like yours. Makes it a lot easier to help the kids and keep a little control. College instructors operate in a different world.

  3. Alan Says:

    For a different approach to outreach (including a high-school level camp lasting over a week, and some online-learn-to-program activities aimed at somewhat younger children), see http://ncss.edu.au/ In reading this material note that in Australia, the term “high school” or “secondary school” typically refers to grades 7-12, and “primary school” is grades 1-6.

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