'I've made screensavers using cats'


Ten years ago, Whizz Kids started an alternative to sports summer camps, and now the current crop of students are learning how to make websites, shoot films and create animations – with the odd bit of sport thrown in

WHIZZ KIDS they are called and whizz kids they are, if the batch of summer campers at DCU are representative of the 1,000 or so eight- to 17-year-olds taking techie camps in third-level colleges throughout Ireland this summer.

Xana (9) tells me how easy it is to make a website, and it’s fun, too. He has even embedded a Japanese cartoon into his. Oisín (12) has been making YouTube videos for the past few years and is really enjoying the stop-motion animation programme at camp this year. Meanwhile, Stephen (13) has made a website on Euro2012, with 19 pages of video clips, text, images and links to other websites.

Ten years ago, camp director Garry Lowe returned after four years of teaching in Dubai to set up his first Whizz Kids summer camp at the University of Limerick. Back then, he didn’t expect the camps would become so popular.

“Soccer Samba was big then and I saw a need to offer computer camps – with website design and movie-making – to kids I had been giving grinds to,” he says. In the first year he lost money, but by 2006, Whizz Kids summer camps had expanded to University College Cork, University College Dublin, Dublin City University and National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway. This year, Whizz Kids also rents space in NUI Maynooth and the Institute of Technology in Tralee for its camps.

The core activities of the half-day, full-day and residential camps are web design, movie-making with cameras on tripods, animation and videogame programming. “We’ve also bolted on more fun elements with a Spy Academy, which includes a host of team-based activities outside and inside using the internet as a research tool to find out information,” says Lowe.

There are sports breaks, with games such as rounders, soccer, dodge ball and Olympic handball when the weather obliges. “Our guys are here for the technology. They’re not the biggest sports guys but we try to get 30 minutes a day outside, weather permitting. If the weather’s not good, we do some code-breaking,” says Lowe.

The advantages of a techie summer camp is the access that the young people get to programmes such as Dreamweaver for web design, Scratch for animation and Stop Motion for filmmaking. So, they get to make screensavers, animation clips and videogames with the help of expert tutors, all of whom are trained primary or secondary school teachers.

“Each group makes a movie – they come up with the idea on Monday, film it from Tuesday to Thursday, and we screen them all on Friday. For the day camps we do the editing, but in the residential camps, the kids do the editing themselves,” says Lowe.

“We don’t allow them to play videogames. We want them to learn to use their computers much more creatively,” he says. None of the websites go live on the internet but the campers leave with a disk with their websites, movies and any other games or animations they have made during the week.

According to Lowe, the interest in techie summer camps is growing and the universities that rent Whizz Kids the space are pleased to nurture this interest.

Back at DCU, the summer campers are honing their websites and animation clips. John (9) says: “My dad loves technology and he wanted me to learn a whole lot more. I’ve made some screensavers at home using Scratch with cats bouncing around on the screen.”

Conor (9), says he came to camp because he likes making websites and he’s made a few small videos before. “I just wanted to learn how to do more stuff.”

There are only two girls in the 12- to 14-year-old group summer camp at DCU. Erin (13) and Ciara (13) have made some fashion websites and have enjoyed the general camaraderie of the camp.

Generally speaking, boys outnumber girls on a two-to-one ratio, according to Garry Lowe, but here at DCU, there are fewer still. “The girls have a greater appreciation for the design elements of their websites and the boys are more creative with the video games,” says instructor Gráinne Leddy.

Lowe is keen to stress that Whizz Kids training is not confined to summer camps and youth clubs. After-school and in-school activities, with mobile units and laptops, are fast expanding beyond Limerick and will be available in Dublin and Cork next year.

See whizzkids.iefor a full programme of this year’s techie summer camps