On a Friday afternoon last month, nearly a dozen children were making finishing touches on model dragons as part of a weeklong 3-D “printing camp” at the Madison Children’s Museum. Their challenge: to get their designs – made with a combination of 3-D printing technology, laser cutters and old-fashioned crafting skills – to safely carry a Ping-Pong ball down a homemade zipline.
The camp is one of several tech-focused summer camp offerings the museum hosted this summer, part of an effort to put a greater focus on technology and hands-on experiences.
Earlier in the week campers toured the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery’s fabrication lab, tested out virtual reality headsets and printed their own name tags using a 3-D printer.
Such programs, which typically involve hundreds of children and teenagers in the Madison area, are part of a growing movement to get kids to swap bathing suits and sunscreen for the chance to learn how to code, create video games and explore virtual reality worlds.
“I think in a lot of ways we fill a void in the public schooling right now, especially in the creative end of things,” said Tim Dreyer, the director of the museum’s “Possible-opolis” exhibit.
At Fractal, which offers science and technology enrichment activities at the Sector 67 startup collective on the city’s East Side, Heather Wentler shows children how to design and print 3-D buildings or turn pencils into musical instruments by connecting them to circuit boards and batteries. The pencils vibrate and sing when the lead meets paper.
A former full-time school teacher, Wentler keeps her summer camps open-ended, allowing her students to work on whatever they’re most interested in, whether it’s coding, sewing or 3-D design.
“I give them loose parameters and see where they take it,” she said.
Since Wentler is the only one teaching most days, she often encourages her campers to help one another when they hit roadblocks, which helps them learn how to work as members of a team. She also ensures that campers use their artistic and creative abilities when they’re working with the technology by giving them different challenges throughout the week.
“Art is a part of this,” she said as she held up a bright pink 3-D-printed castle one of her campers made the day before.
As technology such as 3-D printing becomes more accessible, it has become easier for organizations to create tech-focused camps, Wentler said. The camps have also gained popularity in part because they offer a unique summer camp experience that’s different from what has typically been available, she said.
Reed Hirby, 11, has returned to Wentler’s camp week after week this summer, designing 3-D models of trees and cars. He showed off his failed attempt at 3-D printing a yo-yo. The design didn’t have enough support and broke, he said.
While his projects might not always be successful, Hirby is enthusiastic about 3-D printing’s possibilities, such as 3-D printers that use chocolate or pancake batter and the potential for 3-D-printed cars and bicycles.
“It’s going to change our future,” he said.
A new experience
Classic rock songs played in the background of an iD Tech lab on the UW-Madison campus as rows of children and teenagers sporting navy T-shirts sat in front of laptop computers where they were designing their own video games. A group gathered around a computer when a camper’s first-person shooter game failed. The failure quickly grew into a learning opportunity as the campers sought to troubleshoot the problem.
iD Tech, a national company, offers courses in programming, video game design and coding taught by industry professionals. UW-Madison Campus Director Tim Paneitz compares it to having Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson teach a throwing camp.
While campers leave with experience working with game design and coding programs, the week also offers them the chance to spend time in a university setting and interact with peers with similar interests.
“I was used to traditional camps, but this one is different because you get to stay in the dorms and get the college experience along with the whole video game stuff,” said Brett Beauchene, 14, as he changed the color of an office chair in his video game with single keystrokes.
Fellow iD Tech camper Deva White, 14, said that, after he attended several outdoor camps, he wanted something new. A tech-focused camp let him build on his interest in video games.
But tech-focused doesn’t equate to staring into a screen all day. Attendees still take part in quintessential camp experiences such as sitting around campfires and making new friends. The children who choose the camp’s overnight option catch movies together at the Union Terrace and play “Pokemon Go” on State Street. During the day, campers make field trips to UW-Madison’s geology and zoology museums.
Paneitz said the lessons campers learn extend beyond the technology and software they’re working with, as the camp teaches attendees how to be better communicators, how to solve problems and how to work with other people.
“It brings the solo aspect of gaming and brings it into a cooperative setting,” he said of the camp.
Johanna Taylor, lead educator at BadgerBOTS in Middleton, said along with keeping kids’ minds active during the summer months, the camps also give children an opportunity to think differently about the tools and applications they interact with every day.
“I really believe that if you don’t know how the technology is working, you’re just going to be a consumer,” she said. “And you’re not going to actually be able to make change or (have an) effect in the technology space.”
She said she continually redevelops the camp’s curriculum in order to keep things exciting and informational for students who return year after year and said she’s noticed a greater demand for more advanced courses.
The camps also expose children to skills and technology they’ll likely work with in the future, she said.
“(Learning to code is) almost like learning another language,” she said. “But it’s a language that’s going to be more and more important with technology.”
To make the most of their experience, it’s important that children have access to technology when the week wraps up, said Travis Tangen, education and outreach manager at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
But continuing to work with technology doesn’t require children to own a personal 3-D printer or virtual reality headset. Tangen said having access to a cell phone or a library is enough to get children to keep learning, as many programming and coding applications geared toward children are free to use.
Tangen, who previously worked as a high school teacher, said technology-focused camps help open children’s minds to the possibilities of working with technology, can boost self-esteem and teach children about how to think like scientists.
And the camps often are able to build upon and complement the exposure to technology children get in the classroom, which can vary from school to school, said Beth Clarke, the director of instructional technology for the Madison School District.
“These kids really can take their passion to a deeper level at these camps,” she said.
While the tech-geared offerings are popular, Dreyer said the Children’s Museum has no plans to stop offering its more traditional camps, which include photography, pioneer living and fishing camps.
Both types of camps, he said, teach children skills they can apply in a variety of areas.
“We know that math and science are really hugely important elements of learning,” Dreyer said. “But we want kids to think creatively and be really nimble in their thinking and … give them the confidence to work creatively in whatever they do, whether it’s math or engineering or art or English.”