Can the summer camp experience translate to a Google Hangout?

August 22, 2013

For most kids, the biggest technical difficulty they might run into at summer camp is when the batteries in their flashlights die in the middle of a scary story. But for the kids who participated in Maker Camp this summer, the camp experience could get fuzzy or go silent without warning — if their Internet connection wasn’t good enough, that is.

Maker Camp — a free virtual summer camp for teens run as a collaboration between Maker Media and Google Plus — wrapped up its second summer in action last week with a “field trip” to Pixar Studios and a video message from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

That capped off six weeks of virtual field trips and other activities unique to the online camp experience, including making light-up hoodies inspired by the luminescent costumes in the movie “Tron: Legacy” and creating cereal-box robots.

Afternoons consisted of Maker Camp Hangouts on Google Plus, where campers were introduced to guests such as Damian Kulash, lead singer and guitarist of OK Go; Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers from the Lego Learning Lab; and the team at the Crucible, a famous industrial arts educational facility in Oakland, Calif.

It all sounds like fun, sure. But it’s not lanyard-making or learning to canoe. And it raises the question of whether you can re-create what’s most important about the camp experience over a Google Hangout.

Dale Dougherty, chief executive of Maker Media, doesn’t think the online camp can truly replace a traditional camp but suggests it is equally beneficial — and more accessible — if you are willing to open your mind to what the camp experience should be.

“Camp is a metaphor really for you getting to choose the things you are interested in,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Maker campers did. And they made up a much bigger crowd than could fit around a campfire. According to Maker Media, Maker Camp’s Google Plus page had 3 million visits on the first day of camp this summer. According to Maker Media, 35,000 teens joined the Maker Camp Google Plus community this summer as campers, adding to the more than 1 million who had joined last year.

Some of those high numbers may be because the camp is free — something Dougherty, who was unable to attend camp because it was too expensive, feels strongly about. He wants the virtual camp to be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, a reality made possible through sponsors such as Lego, Radio Shack and Google Plus.

“That was the original mission. Our agenda from the beginning was to have Maker Camp be inclusive,” said senior director of marketing for Maker Media, Vickie Welch.

Peg L. Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association, thinks the online camp experience can be valuable, if in a very different way.

“A traditional camp experience is enhanced by the warmth of a fire and the feeling of a friend’s arm around your shoulder,” she said. And while she said that kids “can certainly make friends online,” there are drawbacks to virtual camp: lack of physical activity, authentic relationships and “true intimacy” with nature.

Summer camp, Google Plus style, does offer one of the most pivotal components of a successful camp experience in Smith’s view: counselors — the people who serve as role models for campers and who, in turn, get a mentoring opportunity.

Sam Freeman, a Maker Camp counselor, said the counselors feed questions from campers to guests on the air and post pictures of campers’ projects on the camp’s Web site. “Those campers are also super enthusiastic to get some notice for their work,” Freeman said, describing the Maker Camp equivalent of a merit badge.

Smith notes that one great aspect of the virtual camp is that it has partnered with libraries and community centers so that a Google Hangout can become a real-life hangout as well. Smith believes this could build a bridge for kids to explore traditional camps as well.

Which might be the best way to get a full camp experience.

“A canoe ride on a lake is something a little bit difficult to duplicate virtually,” Dougherty said. “But we hope, that to some degree, riding your bike around the neighborhood and looking at the buildings is still meaningful. And that is the kind of thing we are encouraging them to do.”

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