CHAMPAIGN — Forget kickball and capture the flag.
A cutting-edge summer camp offers chances to play "Minecraft," program computers and use 3-D printers. But, often, chances like this come with a price tag.
Jeff Ginger knows. As the director of Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab — short for fabrication laboratory — he's watched as his University of Illinois-sponsored camps draw a similar able-to-pay crowd every summer.
"One of the downsides of these camps is that they tend to be kids that are home-schooled or kids that have access to the university," he said. "We wanted to get out of the university and into other populations."
This year, Ginger and other Fab Lab affiliates didn't go very far: They took their programming to the Urbana Neighborhood Connections Center and organized two, two-week summer camps around space and computer technology.
For those who think it sounds too "educational" for summer, Ginger suggests that the kids are the judges. Last week, noise in the "Minecraft" room was deafening, while the game-design room remained quiet as kids zeroed-in on their computer screens, concentrating.
"Minecraft" — a multiplatform game where users create unique worlds and experiences using virtual blocks — claims about 75 million users per month, according to its studio head, Helen Chiang. Its appeal spans generations, and it caught on with kids. In fact, it was children at the Urbana Free Library after school who taught Ginger how to play.
"These kids knew more about this game than I did, so I had them teach me," he said. "I very quickly learned that you can import and export 3-D models into it, so you can actually print stuff out of 'Minecraft.' We built a whole camp around that series."
Judge it by another of Ginger's benchmarks: finding out if interest remains piqued after a unit ends.
"Some of the kids get into it and want to do more with it, and that's usually a success sign," he said.
That's true for Urbana Middle School eighth-grader Lawrence Daniels, who said he kept thinking about what he wanted to do with "Minecraft" well after he'd transitioned to the game-design portion of camp.
"My coolest thing was when I went up there with 'Minecraft,'" he said. "I built my house, and I didn't get to finish it."
Ginger was full of reassurances. Since the camp's equipment — computers, 3-D printers and a router, among other items — came from an Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband grant, all of it will remain at UNCC after the camps formally end, meaning Daniels and other kids can pick up right where they left off.
Ginger would like to see the camps' programming expand into classrooms, but noted there are all kinds of "structural barriers," like a class having 30 students and one teacher, or only a half-hour to try to implement technology like Champaign-Urbana Fab Lab offers. If it can't expand via classroom, Ginger said after-school and summer sites become integral for accessibility.
"It becomes really important that the libraries and after-school centers end up being the place where kids learn a lot of this kind of thing," he said.
Daniels and fellow UMS eighth-grader Tynaiah McGhee both said they'd never seen or used a 3-D printer prior to this summer.
"We got to go on 'Minecraft,' make something, and then print it out and see it in real life," McGhee said.
For Ginger, the summer camps represent at least two things. First is the power of local collaboration.
"Janice Mitchell (the director of UNCC) provided the space and UC2B provided the grant," he said. "It wasn't entirely just the university coming in and setting this up."
And second, responsiveness to what kids actually want.
"We want to do sexy things like, 'We're going to enable kids to program supercomputers,'" he said. "But what we really need is kids to care. This is why this stuff is important. We start out by playing, and that actually leads into more serious pursuits."