Tim Paneitz is a big, friendly-looking man who goes by the nickname Big Papa P. He says he’s spent over a year of his life away at camp as a counselor, and he looks like the sort of guy who’d be good at organizing kids into a three-legged race, or telling a campfire tale about the guy with the hook for a hand.
But this summer, Big Papa P is running a different kind of camp. The kids in his charge are spending a summer afternoon in a classroom on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, each in front of a laptop. They’re busily coding away, creating new quests for the role-playing game Torchlight, new levels for the puzzle game Portal 2, and new creatures for Minecraft, the gaming phenomenon that allows kids to design and explore their own environments block by block.
High-tech summer camps like the ones that Paneitz’s company, iD Tech, offers are becoming increasingly popular. The Madison Children’s Museum, for one, offers weeklong camps in 3D printing while Madison Fractal, a camp affiliated with the Sector67 startup collective, lets kids explore a variety of tech-related projects.
For kids, the camps are a way to immerse themselves in some of their favorite things, the same way basketball-loving or craft-loving kids have their own camps. For parents, they are a way to keep kids intellectually engaged during the summer, but outside a traditional classroom structure. And they offer many of the same social benefits of outdoor camps, without the need for mosquito repellent.
ID Tech is a national company with more than 100 locations that has been on the UW campus for the last five years, running three programs each week throughout the summer. The camps are geared toward not just casual gamers, but kids between the ages of 7 and 16 who want to understand the nuts and bolts of programming, often with an eye towards a future career in computers.
“We’re all about exposing students at young ages to high-level programming,” Paneitz said. “For example, in role-playing and Minecraft, we’re... exposing them to industry level software, usage, design. They’re getting a jumpstart in all those different areas.
“We have kids that love Minecraft so they’re here for Minecraft,” he said. “We have kids that want to go into the career field of game design, or software development, or computer science or even engineering, so they’re here to further that, and get a better taste.”
Paneitz said the biggest misconception about the camp is that it’s just kids spending all day inside playing video games — the sort of thing parents discourage as they shoo their kids out the door in the summer. But the camps are a mix of gaming design and social activities (including some outside time), and can open the kids’ minds up to what might be a very lucrative career. And that shouldn’t bother parents at all.
“Look at the University of Wisconsin, starting a huge game design program. There’s a reason that that’s out there,” Paneitz said. “It’s a growing industry that needs new employees, and we’d love to put some boys and girls in those positions.”
Those sentiments were echoed by several of the kids.
“That’s really why I came here,” said Aaron House, 13, of Madison. “I really want to become a game designer. That would be really cool.”
To help them, the camp has seven counselors — one for every eight students or so — who are experts at game design and coding. Whether a student is new to game development or has been coding for several years, they can have a camp experience designed to their level.
“We have a lot of students who have very, very little background, and we’ll have those students that are taking college level courses in middle school,” Paneitz said. “They’re all coming in and they’re all feeling challenged, which is great. Our instructors, they know the material, so they’re able to meet those kids wherever they’re at.”
House was busy playing through and testing out (“playtesting” in video game parlance) game levels created by other kids, looking for glitches and places for improvement. The iD Tech instructors encourage constant feedback between the players, who fill out a form that starts with the positive (“What three things did you like best?”) and moves on to constructive criticism (“What three things would you like to see included?”)
House said that as much as he enjoys working on his own projects, he likes seeing what his classmates are up to.
“I kind of like seeing other people’s creations,” he said. “There are cool portal maps, but also the people who are working on torchlight dungeons have created absurd ridiculous dungeons, like a room with 50 bosses where you have to strike them all down with a sword. It’s really fun to see what crazy stuff other people create.”
Those kinds of interpersonal skills will be valuable whether the kids go into a computer-related field or not, as companies emphasize collaboration and team-based, project-oriented work. It’s also something that is the essence of the summer camp experience, Paneitz said.
“That’s the one part that I really enjoy about camp,” he said. “We’re taking something that has a tendency to be isolating, we’re pulling it out of isolation and putting that communal element with it. Now all of our students are at a camp and there are those camp components, where we’re playing games, and we have field games and we have shout-outs.”
That interpersonal bond can get even stronger for the kids (about half of the 55 campers per week) who opt for sleepover camp. The campers sleep in dorms on campus, eat together in the dining hall and ride the bus back and forth to class each day.
At night, they head out on the town.
“We go down to the Terrace for the (Lakeside Cinema) movie on Monday if it’s appropriate,” Tim said. “We’ll go down to State Street and walk up and down to the Capitol, we’ll get some ice cream on the Terrace. So they’re getting that campus experience as well as the camp experience.”
Paneitz said that, for him, the importance of being at camp transcends what kind of camp it is. For kids, it’s a chance to connect with other kids they might not have otherwise met who are into the same things.
“There’s that commonality, that bond, that’s automatically created when you walk through the door,” he said. “We see that at dinner the first night. There’s no awkward transition of trying to get to know each other. It’s ‘Pick a topic that I like and you like, and let’s talk about it.’ That’s what camp is all about to me.”
While all kids can benefit from making those kinds of connections, he said, kids who are into video games and computing may benefit even more.
“A lot of our kids have a tendency in our normal daily lives to be introverted and not extremely social. This for a lot of them is stretching what they’re used to. At the end of the week when they give us our evaluations, it’s amazing to see them say “I’ve made friends,” or “It’s the first time I’ve been around people who share my interests.” It’s cool to be a part of that.”
Learning in 3D
While the iD Tech kids are busy in front of their laptops, on another part of the UW-Madison campus, up on the second floor teaching lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, kids are playing with goo.
Pink goo, specifically. Each of the 13 kids in the Madison Children’s Museum’s 3D Printing Camp have been given a syringe by WID instructor Freddy Barrio-nuevo Martinez full of pink dough. Following printed instructions, they carefully squeeze bits of goo in designated spots on a tiny grid.
The idea is to mimic the extruding that an actual 3D printer does, so that they fully understand the process.
“Printers, go ahead and shut yourselves off,” Martinez said. “You’re going to be humans again.”
“Awwww!” the class responds, mock-dejected.
During the week, the students used computer-assisted design to design and create ink stamps, creatures and other items. They spend two days at WID, touring the Fabrication Lab and using computers and 3D printing pens to build their items.
“At this point, they’re kind of experts in CAD software,” said Travis Tangen, education outreach manager from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “It’s fun to see all the things that kids can do when given the opportunities.”
This is the second year that the Madison Children’s Museum has offered the camp, in conjunction with WID and the Madison Community Foundation. Tangen said having a weeklong immersive camp allows instructors and students to really do a deep dive into the subject.
“You’ve got a whole week to track and record how the kids are learning. It allows their total creativity to come out,” he said.
Tim Dreyer, director of the museum’s “Possible-opolis” exhibit, said the museum likes to blend analog and high-tech elements in its programming, as well as integrate arts into the traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum.
“Learning through play is our main thing,” he said. “We’re really big into that and finding creative ways to use cutting edge technology.”
Later this summer, the museum will offer an Inventors Camp during the first week of August for which a couple of spots remain, and a sold-out Lego Robotics camp. There are also one-day weekend workshops with high tech elements, such as a “Digi-Design” workshop where kids create LED bracelets, and Scratch programming classes in the fall.
WID offers several other camps, including one on sustainability and another on biology that’s aimed at rural Wisconsin kids. The camps connect to the mission of WID and the Wisconsin Idea of bringing all the scientific work going on on campus to the rest of the state.
“We’re trying to support the community and connect them to what research is happening,” Tangen said. “The kids are inspired by science by doing science, rather than learning about science.”
While 3D printing might be relatively novel to their parents, many of the kids who signed up for the camp had at least heard of the concept.
“I’ve seen stuff made from a 3D printer, and it looked really cool,” said Janea Shecterle, 10, who will be a fifth grader at Kegonsa Elementary in Stoughton. “I wanted to try it and see how to do it.”
Clarissa Kuster, 11, who will start sixth grade in the fall at Jefferson Middle School, had a specific goal in mind when she joined the class. Her mother is an avid quilter, and she wanted to design a specific tool for her to use.
“It’s really fun. I’ve been trying to make a specific piece of equipment for a quilt. I thought I might be able to learn how,” she said.
Many of the objects, such as stamps, are designed to be used. At the end of the week, the students present the objects they’ve created. Some of them, such as the stamps, will stay at the museum.
“They’re creating stuff that other kids are going to use,” Tangen said.
At the end of a class, Martinez marvels at all the students have done.
“You guys are jumping way ahead of me,” he said. “You guys are some of the better human printers that I’ve seen in my life. Much better than me.”
That may be the ultimate goal of all these high-tech summer camps, whether they involve 3D printing or game design or robotics. The instructors don’t want to just teach the kids, they want to provide a foundation for the kids to leap beyond their expectations, creating things grown-ups would have never expected.
“It’s an exploration,” said Heather Wentler, creator of Madison Fractal. “They teach me as much as I teach them. And I tell them, 'There’s only one of me and there’s 10 of you. So, rely on each other.'”
Madison Fractal is part of the Sector67 startup incubator, and in many ways bridges high-tech summer camps and startup culture. The camps there offer 10 kids per week, ages 6-13, the chance to come in and work on one of several projects per week, largely self-directed.
“They get to pick and choose what they want to work on during that time,” Wentler said. “I’m there to offer support and guidance along the way. And then on Friday, the parents come in and the kids do presentations on what they’ve done during the week.”
Wentler used to teach in public school, but became frustrated with the limitations of traditional instruction. She created Madison Fractal, which began offering programming through the Children’s Museum and MSCR throughout the year, eventually connecting with Sector67 (her husband is its founder, Chris Meyer) and began offering summer camps last year.
“We’re tricking the kids, but we’re not really tricking the kids,” she said. “It’s different than the school setting, so I think that’s why they find it’s so appealing. I’m learning something, but it’s not somebody standing in front of me saying 'This is how you do it.'”
Madison Fractal encourages collaboration between the students and exploring different ways of thinking, including not being afraid to experiment and fail.
“One kid this week is making a little marble machine, so we cut out all the parts on the laser cutter,” she said. “And he got it all done today and said the marble doesn’t go in. We looked and ‘Oh, you didn’t line up the gears right.’ And so he’s going to start over tomorrow.
“It’s giving them the opportunity to fail and fail often, kind of like we do in the startup world,” Wentler said. “And realize it’s okay. Just keep moving forward.”
And, unlike many classes and even camps where all the students work on the same thing, Fractal offers the chance to switch from one project to the other to help problem solve.
“One kid was trying to make a chicken in Google Sketchpad,” Wentler said. “She was getting so frustrated and I said ‘Just take a break.’ She started working on something else, and 20 minutes later she said, ‘Oh, I think I figured it out’ and she went back to the chicken.
“And that’s how real life works.”