Summer of Code
Connected Camps offers accessible, fun, project-based STEM learning experiences for all kids
By My Nguyen
Imagine a summer camp where young people not only play games together, but also design and build games themselves — a camp where kids can code projects based on their interests, limited only by their own imaginations.
As it turns out, this camp exists, and it’s located anywhere you can find a good internet connection.
Connected Camps is a non-profit organization providing social, project-based learning experiences that foster creativity, problem solving, collaboration and interest-driven learning.
This summer, they’re offering 30 different week-long camps focused on Scratch and Minecraft to ignite kids’ interests in technology. Campers participate online, learning in small groups from counselors who are passionate about topics like coding, game design, and engineering. Over the course of a week, campers learn by doing — engaging in hands-on projects that cater to interests like games, exploration, and design.
Co-founded by Mimi Ito, an educational researcher and advocate for connected learning; Katie Salen, a game designer, educator and force behind the creation of Institute of Play and its partner school Quest to Learn; and Tara Tiger Brown, a technologist and entrepreneur who founded LA Makerspace, Connected Camps is backed by research and testing in practice.
“The best way for kids to develop tech skills and interests is through fun and challenging projects with peers and mentors they feel connected with. We run camps that meet kids where they are,” said Katie Salen, Connected Camps co-founder.
The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Katie via email to learn more about the ideas behind Connected Camps.
What is Connected Camps?
Connected Camps is a non-profit organization offering social, project-based STEM learning experiences online in Scratch and Minecraft. Our online community is made up of kids and expert youth tech mentors learning to code, build, design, animate, and engineer together. Kids can explore topics like creative coding or animation in Scratch and engineering, game design, and coding in Minecraft — in either a group format or individual mentoring. We also run a free, year-round Minecraft server for kids called Kid Club. The server is moderated and our online mentors facilitate activities on the server, like book clubs, a survival bazaar, and mini-games. Kids can choose to participate in these or come up with activities of their own.
Where did the idea of Connected Camps come from?
Connected Camps grows out of research and development that Mimi and I have been engaged in for over a decade, investigating how to create kid-friendly online learning experiences. We first started working together as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, which supported the development of the “connected learning” framework that guides our approach in Connected Camps. Connected learning is an evidence-backed framework for tapping kids’ authentic interests and social activity to power project-based learning.
In 2014 we began piloting connected learning programs in a wide range of online platforms, including Minecraft and Scratch. We wanted to better understand how peer learning and mentorship worked in online platforms. Research from our Connected Learning Research Network show that when a kid gets connected to a mentor with a shared interest, it motivates their learning and engagement. Other research points to the importance of sustained project-based learning to genuine, long-term interest in technical fields. Our programs are designed with this research in mind. In our Scratch online camps, for example, we provide a mentoring model that builds on the organic peer mentorship of the Scratch community. The camps are project-based and run by online mentors who know Scratch and onboard kids into becoming active members of the Scratch community.
What are the goals of Connected Camps?
Our goal is to provide accessible, fun, project-based STEM learning experiences for all kids. Many parents are searching for genuinely engaging STEM learning for their children, but their options are limited. We want to address this need through our programs and blog. Ultimately we aspire to build a global online community where kids build, code, play, and learn from one another. Our programs tap the power of youth tech experts to teach and mentor. Our Connected Parenting blog is about sharing and connecting with a world positive community committed to nurturing fearless, curious, and self-directed young learners.
How is Connected Camps different from other tech or coding camps for kids?
Our programs are designed around challenging and fun collaborative projects within an online community of kids and mentors passionate about technology and digital art. They are year-round and affordable, with a price point far below in-person tech camps. Because our programs are virtual, kids can attend from anywhere they have an internet connection. Most importantly, instruction occurs in real-time. Kids learn and grow in an active, social setting.
What kinds of pathways does Connected Camps offer into coding?
We provide a number of different pathways into coding. The key is understanding different motivations. Some kids are interested in coding for coding’s sake, some are motivated by friendship and play, and some are motivated by achievement and opportunity. By tapping different interests and motivations, we can find a pathway to coding for all kids. Mimi wrote about this approach in a recent post.
Connected Camps uses game design (either in Minecraft of Scratch) as one pathway into coding. Kids code as part of building games, and then they get to play the games together. Our 1–1 mentoring in coding provides instruction in coding and allows kids to work closely with an expert mentor on coding projects that help them level up their skills. All represent different ways for kids to discover how coding can be useful and interesting.
What does a typical camp focusing on Scratch look like?
Campers will make their very own Scratch projects, share and modify each other’s projects, and learn how to connect with Scratch’s vibrant community of creative coders. The five-day camp includes 10 hours of online instruction and activities using the Scratch coding interface and Zoom video chat, led by counselors who love Scratch and are eager to share their enthusiasm for creative coding. Camp sessions run for two hours each day. The group format provides kids with the opportunity to get help if they need it and to share what they know with others. By the end of the week they will have created a few projects of their own and made a lot of new friends.
Why did you decide to offer girls-only camps?
A recent study on the impact of women mentors in engineering programs showed that it wasn’t the ability of students in a program that determined whether they would stay in the field. Rather, it was due to a sense of belonging and confidence that resulted from a connection with a female mentor. Nilanjana Dasgupta, author of the study, noted that “It’s ability mixed in that feeling that these are your people, this is where you belong. Absent, that even high-performers might not feel motivated to stay.”
This is one reason we offer girls-only camps, staffed with female mentors. The format not only cultivates a sense of belonging and confidence but also allows young women to do it on their own terms. 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. The camps cover the same material as our co-ed camps.
Mimi Ito, a co-founder of Connected Camps, often emphasizes the importance of ongoing social support from peers and mentors when engaging kids in coding. How will Connected Camps incorporate this idea?
At Connected Camps we believe three things power extraordinary learning: shared interests, engaging activities, and a community kids can return to again and again. Great people make it even better. Beyond offering an accessible way of getting kids into peer-based social mentorship, our online camps also create opportunities for kids to connect with a mentor who can give advice, help make social connections, and share experiences.
Further, because our online mentors love Scratch and Minecraft and study game design, animation, 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. The connections made via this form of online mentorship help kids grow their networks and their interests.
Connected Camps is a non-profit providing connected learning experiences that foster creativity, problem solving, collaboration and interest-driven learning. Its mission is to build a global online community where kids build, code, play, and learn from one another. Tapping the power of youth tech experts to teach and mentor, Connected Camps has served thousands of kids through its online and community-based programs. Connected Camps is a member of the Connected Learning Alliance, which supports the expansion and influence of a network of educators, experts and youth-serving organizations mobilizing new technology in the service of equity, access and opportunity for all young people.
To register for camps, or for more information, visit connectedcamps.com.