Sleepless in Seattle on the US computer camp

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Put 100 kids from all over the world on a campsite in Seattle with a bank of computers, and what do you get? Justin Stevens reports on the technology-literate generation

We're missing two" "Are you sure? Count againI Look, could each counsellor check they have all their campersI" "We need someone with sign languageIin three hours for the afternoonI" "I want to go home!" As any teacher knows, one of the basic skills of teaching is to make the impossible happen. Needless to say all these problems are addressed and resolved by an indefatigable staff. And where is all this happening? Well it's ACE (American Computer Experience) computer camp at Washington University in Seattle - all part of Teen TechFest 2000 co-sponsored by Microsoft, Intel Play, LucasArts among countless others.

This year's Washington camp is home to 100 people (five of whom were counsellors in training, responsible for supervising the other campers) - 80 boys and 20 girls - with 25 visitors from the UK, including three lucky winners (Daniel Sitanayak, 13, from King Edward VI Fiveways Grammar School; Charlotte Cook, 17, from South Wiltshire Grammar School, Salisbury; and Nick Godsland, 14, from West Exeter Tech) of a competition for a five-day trip to the Seattle camp (TES April 28) from June 15 to 22.

Despite the initial grumbles about American lemonade being flat and the fact that the British as well as most of the European contingent had landed during a tornado - a scary prospect indeed - the campers were soon mucking in with the best of them. Much of this turnaround in fortunes is due to chief camper Doug Murphy and his team. Their enthusiasm and organisation soon manages to win over the contingent from this side of the pond.

A real turning point is the second day of camp. Once the campers are learning about 3-D modelling and Web design they are a happy bunch indeed and to top it all they are given free tickets for two hours playing games at Seattle's biggest computer arcade. The sight of a Japanese camper boogieing to a computerised dance game where the floor lights up where your feet should be was a memorable one - he was the best by a street and I fully expect him to claim Olympic gold at the Sydney Games.

By the next day, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and new groups of friends have been frmed. Nicholas McCarthy, 14, from the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (his mum found out about the camp in The TES) is taken aback by the size of it all. He loves it and wants a job here: "It's just so big and the equipment is the very latest and in a different league to back home." He wants to pursue an IT-based career in programming, but is frustrated by the lack of ICT knowledge among his teachers and the fact that IT is not treated as "seriously" as other subjects.

The day also offers a trip to the Microsoft Home Of The Future - something that ended up really appealing to the boys in the group, with some of the girls looking ambivalent to the whole thing. It is true that it is full of "boys' toys" with computer devices to open your front door, set up movies, tell you when your fridge is out of milk, access the Internet in every room etc. While some things were definitely useful, like the fact that you can receive a mobile phone call when your front door is rung and talk to the person at the door from your office or wherever you are, others seemed like a glorified version of the standard remote controls in many homes, but more so.

The difference between the US and elsewhere was startlingly underlined by the example of 17-year-old Ephren Taylor from Kansas City. Here was someone who would put many a European business person to shame. He and his "partner" had spotted an unfilled niche in the Internet market - namely summer work for teenagers. They set up a site and within months had been offered $250,000 for the site. So why didn't he take it? Well he reckons that it has huge potential and they are looking for people to invest in their idea, not take it over. Check out the site; it's nothing elaborate but it is extremely functional and plugs a gap in the market.

By the time of the Microsoft barbecue on day four all the new friendships are cemented and an American dream of sorts is germinating in many a young mind. By this time Doug is looking as if he has jet lag, but he hasn't been on a flight. It is a testament to the ACE team's organisation and motivation that such a big operation was carried off with such aplomb. Missing ya already!!

75 different camps run throughout the USeach year

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