A tech camp where kids learn to interact face-to-face | July 12, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 12, 2013

A tech camp where kids learn to interact face-to-face

Newsroom By The Bay finds ways to enhance and balance digital screen time

by Karishma Mehrotra

While some kids are attending camps to unplug, one summer camp at Stanford University is creating hands-on, out-of-the-classroom experiences with an emphasis on the latest digital tools.

The week-long program in June, Newsroom By The Bay, gets high school kids out into the outdoors to become reporters who gather information, conduct interviews and develop communication skills.

This year the students took to the "rolling newsroom" — Caltrain — to San Francisco the day before the Supreme Court's two historic gay-rights decisions.

When they got back to Stanford that night, student Jacob Cader led the charge to set up a WordPress.com blog to report on the events.

The next day they covered reactions and developing news after the court announced its decisions. The students used much of the latest technology, from smartphones to iPads to report, write stories and design the website.

"Obviously without technology, it would have been impossible. I think looking forward into the future, particularly as journalists, technology is very much embedded in our world. So knowing how to use those tools effectively is pretty essential to having success later in the workplace," said Simon Greenhill, one of the main editors of the website.

Camp Co-Director Paul Kandell explained the concept.

"It wouldn't be right to say it's a tech camp. It's a camp for humans who want to be empowered, and we know that digital journalism has the tools to empower," Kandell said.

Medline Ottilie, a student from San Diego, has re-envisioned the way she uses technology since coming to the camp. Her phone used be the center for Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Now, she sees it as a way to record interviews, publish stories and broadcast video, she said.

Greenhill agreed.

"It's not about whether technology exists. It's about how you use it. You are always going to be influenced by it. You can make that influence a really great thing ... or you can waste your life playing Doodle Jump," he said.

Those two worlds have nothing to do with each other, he added.

"Yes, a lot of kids and teenagers are using technology and spending way too much in front of a screen doing really zone-out, unproductive things. But that's not a product of the use of technology in a productive sphere," he said.

Kandell agreed that passive consumption does not engage critical-thinking skills.

"Campers are going to come here and deeply engage in using a variety of hardware and software tools, but they are doing it in an environment focused on responsible use and very high purpose. You can use social media to the lowest common denominator. But that's not what we're about. We are about just the opposite," he said.

It isn't just a world that the campers should want to enter; it is something they will need to enter, he added.

"It would be terrible to box kids out from the technology that will be their ticket to the future. What a crazy idea. We have to teach them how to use those tools well."

It is more dangerous not to teach kids how to use technology tools in the right way, Co-Director Beatrice Motamedi said. And schools that limit students' technology place them in "intellectual cages" that will hinder their future, Kandell added.

But Hailey Waller, camp leader, said watching kids bring their phone to dinner "deeply bothers" her.

"I think technology, as amazing as it is and as much as it did allow us to do that website — it is important to take time completely away from technology," she said.

Waller is in charge of an hour-long "down time" schedule each day, when campers play games such as kickball, steal the bacon and soccer.

"It's nice when people come out and they have a ball in their hands instead of an iPad. It's really refreshing, and I think it improves efficiency of the technology user ... when the cell phone goes away and the mind is able to completely regroup and recollect," she said.

Student Jeff Hara sees it both ways. Technology is a kind of drug, he said.

"It's something you can easily get hooked onto. But on the other hand, technology is something that can revolutionize industries. Drugs maybe have a connotation to it, but they are also medicine, right? ... It has to be used in moderation and not indiscriminately," he said.

Even Kandell, someone who sees great worth in technology, tells his son to unplug every once in a while.

"I think there's immense value in taking that time also. And then there's a time for learning how to deeply dive in and engaging with the tools of the future, too. You have to have both parts to be successful."

Motamedi calls that time "still moments." She has found many of them even in her camp. At a keynote address by fiction Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson, she didn't see an iPad or laptop in sight, she said.

"People were just listening. It does all begin and end with story. And the kids know that."

Parents teach kids to drive even though they understand the risks, she said.

"What's the difference with digital tools?" she added.

Even if the students start playing games and other not-so-productive activities on their iPads, Motamedi defends that time.

"If you have a car, you need to know how to turn on the windshield wipers, the left directional signal. You need to take it out for a spin. I don't think there is anything you don't learn from," she said.

Editorial Intern Karishma Mehrotra can be emailed at kmehrotra@paweekly.com.


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