Earth’s molten core and the lost city of Atlantis are not traditional summer destinations for kids, but intrepid young campers can now contend with lava or rebuild the underwater metropolis as they learn, play and socialize in the digital realms of virtual camps.
California-based Connected Camps is part of a growing offering of online camps that fill a unique niche to complement their traditional pine-and-mortar counterparts. Accessible across the U.S. and around the world, the camp offers programs in engineering, architecture, coding, animation, game design and storytelling, all hosted on custom Minecraft servers or delivered with MIT’s Scratch coding software. Each weeklong program connects kids with fellow campers and expert mentors who support the participants and share their expertise.
“We meet kids where they are, where they’re already engaged with social and interest-driven learning,” said Mimi Ito, a co-founder of Connected Camps and a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on how young people engage with digital media. “If you’re already messing around with redstone in Minecraft, this is a pathway for you to learn circuitry and get interested in engineering.”
The camp was founded on the principles of connected learning, an evidence-based framework developed through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. The work is informed by the Connected Learning Research Network, a research, design and implementation hub whose mandate is to advance interdisciplinary work for learning in a connected world. In addition to Ito, Connected Camps was launched by game designer and educator Katie Salen and makerspace whiz Tara Brown, a self-proclaimed trio of “girl geeks” who combine a wealth of experience in learning, technology and academia.
“It’s a pretty simple premise,” said Ito. “When you connect to what kids are genuinely interested in and learning is embedded in a meaningful social context, then it's more engaging, resilient and transformative." She said kids are already engaged in gaming or online communities, but the team was trying to make the connection to learning opportunities outside school. The camp strives to guide and shape a child’s existing interest to further academic achievement, career potential and civic engagement.
“It’s positive and productive -- [my son] learned new concepts, including the election process," said Lily Santosa, whose 12-year-old joined the camp all the way from Sydney, Australia. "It helped him discover his passion for building and creating cool stuff. It also helps him to do research on other challenges that he could do in Minecraft.”
Connected Camp's approach draws from a deep well of social and student-centered learning theories. It embodies the idea of social constructivism, whose premise is that knowledge is built through social interactions, and its closely allied theory of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) that extends the principles of social learning to networked and online environments. Connected Camps designs project-based goals, like colonizing Mars or programming turtles to swim, in safe and familiar digital worlds to encourage campers to collectively solve problems and build knowledge in fun and engaging ways. Salen underscores that the camp’s structure relies on research that finds experiential and project-based learning can lead to long-term interest in technical fields.
SOCIAL INTERACTIONS IN REAL LIFE
But how does socializing online compare to real-world, flesh-and-blood interaction? “We think that today’s technology provides a new opportunity for kids to be able to connect and affiliate, but it’s not a model that requires technology,” said Ito. She said that kids are connecting through athletics and other non-digital arts, but connecting online helps kids find the interests and communities that might not be available to them in person.
"The internet provides an opportunity for kids to really find their people, which is especially important for kids who might not be into the handful of offerings that are available in their community," said Ito. "The ability to have more micro-niches to cater to a vast diversity of interests is one of the biggest advantages of online.”
A second benefit of online engagement is accessibility and equity. “Many in-person tech or coding summer camps are expensive, boutique programs only available in urban high-tech regions," said Salen, whose prolific career includes founding Institute of Play, the organization behind diverse game-based learning projects like the famed Quest to Learn school in New York City and Chicago. "This means lots of kids can’t attend them. Because our programs are virtual, kids can attend from anywhere they have an internet connection.” Weekly programs start at $69, but the year-round Kid Club is free and offers kids access to a Minecraft server and guidance from a counselor.
To help bridge the digital divide, Connected Camps has developed relationships with schools, libraries and community programs to facilitate spaces and computers for kids who may otherwise have trouble accessing the web. Also, unlike other summer activities where kids pursue an interest for the length of the program without structured follow-up, online campers can persist with their passions and build momentum by staying connected to the community year-round.
"Having an online camp is perfect for [my daughter] because she can be at home, her happy place, and still get to do something fun, interactive and learn about something she already loves," said Karen Gilbo, who lives outside Washington, D.C., and has enrolled her 12-year-old daughter in several Connected Camp programs over the last two years. Her daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was able to nourish her passions for Minecraft and STEM, while socializing with greater comfort than in her face-to-face interactions.
"We always struggle to get her into summer camps because she requires an aide, which makes her feel really different from the other kids," said Gilbo of her daughter. “This is the first time she has ever asked directly to be in a program because she really enjoys the interaction." Even though the personal interactions take place online, they don't necessarily stay that way, said Gilbo. "The only thing [my daughter] has asked is if she can go meet the counselors in person and when can she start being a counselor herself.”
LEVELING UP WITH MENTORSHIP
A hallmark of the Connected Camp experience is the proficiency and guidance offered by the counselors, known as mentors. Mentors are high school and college students who are recruited for their expertise in Minecraft and Scratch. They design and build the custom server spaces, steward the programs and interface with the campers through online and video chats. Camper-to-mentor ratios range from 1:1 to 20:1, depending on the program.
“Our model is about interest-driven and affinity-based mentorship, and we believe that kids learn best from slightly older kids who are passionate about the same interest as they are,” said Ito. Studies have found that well-implemented mentorship programs can bestow a broad range of academic, social and emotional benefits, and help better shepherd young people along an often daunting career path.
“Because our online mentors love tech and study game design, interactive design and computer science at universities around the country, they help kids see the different directions an interest in creative coding can go. They offer practical advice, encourage struggling learners and share stories from the trenches,” said Salen.
And, in a testament to the holistic power of intergenerational relationships, the mentors themselves also grow from the experience.
“The counselors also have this transformative experience. For the first time, they’re actually giving and contributing with something where they have more expertise than the adults around the table,” said Ito. “We’ve been very successful at recruiting a diverse range of counselors and placing them in their first jobs after Connected Camps," said Ito.
Connected Camps also furnishes opportunities to tap into girl power. Most programs have a “just for girls” option that is exclusively girl-run and populated. The underrepresentation and exodus of women in STEM fields is well reported, and a big part of the problem is isolation, sexism and condescension, a problem whose roots extend to middle school. A recent study found that female mentorship in engineering helped remedy a condition that “veer[s] towards exclusion and attrition.
“These clubs create a space where girls are free to try out skills without boys demonstrating taken-for-granted tech knowledge, and where girls don’t have to demonstrate technological incompetence in front of the boys,” said Jennifer Jenson, a games and gender expert at York University in Toronto. She sees girls-only technology camps and clubs as a big plus. Jenson, who has extensive experience studying and observing school tech clubs in action, notes that in mixed-gender groups, girls tend to disavow their existing knowledge, are more reluctant to raise their hand and are less likely to speak up. Once the girls have had the space and time to consolidate their self-confidence, and level-up their abilities and proficiency, Jenson is in favor of reintegrating the gender groups.
“The format not only cultivates a sense of belonging and confidence, but also allows young women to do it on their own terms,” said Salen. “The girls-only format sets aside some of the more competitive elements of some of the co-ed camps, providing ample opportunity for the girls to connect with others in a highly collaborative setting.”