Campers interested in music can learn how to DJ. Campers interested in music can learn how to DJ. Campers interested in music can learn how to DJ. (Photo: Courtesy)

At this camp, it’s computers instead of canoeing

Alumni have gone on to work for Sony, YouTube and the robot industry.

These days, summer camps aren’t just about camping, canoeing and color war. Special interest camps cater to kids who love theater, cooking, writing, robotics, music and fashion design. And for wannabe computer programmers, graphic designers, animators and others interested with all things cyber, there are tech-oriented camps like Big Idea in Israel. It combines computer workshops with other activities like sports, travel, and sharing experiences with like-minded Israeli kids and campers from all over the world.

In its 11th summer, Big Idea expects to host 1,000 campers aged 7 to 18. Half of the kids are from Israel, and 25% are from the U.S. “The rest is an amazing mix, from France, the U.K, Spain, Turkey, Italy, Canada, Mexico and even places like China and Singapore. We even have two kids from Vietnam,” VP Nir Gad told From The Grapevine. “We connect kids and teens from around the world to Israel through experiences of innovation, creativity and a lot of fun. Our focus is not only on the tech aspects. We also focus on creating a community during the summer and giving our campers experiences that will empower them and give them social and tech skills for life.”

The music department is one of the most popular at the camp. The music department is one of the most popular at the camp. (Photo: Courtesy)

In addition to learning about new technology, campers also participate in more traditional summer activities like color war. In addition to learning about new technology, campers also participate in more traditional summer activities like color war. (Photo: Courtesy)

At each two-week session, campers choose three workshops from a menu of 40 for a hands-on experience in which they work in small groups with a counselor toward a final project. There are workshops in 3-D modeling, coding and computer programming, web design, DJ mixing, photography, video production and animation – just to name a few. There's even a class on building drones.

“If you take a mobile apps workshop, at the end you'll have your own app you can put on the phone and send your friends. If you take graphic design, you'll have a poster you can take home,” explained Gad. “We also have advanced workshops in almost every field, so when you come back a year after, you can take the advanced workshop and continue to improve your skills.”

The counselors, all tech-savvy, are as multi-national as the campers. “Last summer we had staff from the USA, France, Argentina, South Africa, Italy and more,” Gad noted. Some are former campers who have joined the staff; about 40% of campers are returnees, back “for the community of friends from abroad that they made, and the workshops and the chance to improve their skills,” he continued. “Our best success story is someone who started at camp in 2008 when she was in sixth grade, participated every year since, and today she is part of our office staff during the year.”

Other successes include one camper who landed a special effects department internship at Sony Studios, another who learned about robotics in camp and now is the captain of his robotics team, and a few grads from the YouTube workshop who now create content for a living.

But as Gad emphasized, the experience is not just technological. "It includes many ‘traditional’ camp experiences: talent shows, parties, and color war, but with a high-tech twist. Apart from sports and swimming, our campers can compete in a game console tournament and a cyber escape room they have to crack.” Texting and surfing the web is not on the activity list. Cell phones are not permitted. “Returning campers mention that is what makes the camp more fun and meaningful for them,” Gad said.

Campers learn how to use a green screen while filming. Campers learn how to use a green screen while filming. (Photo: Courtesy)

A camper learns how to make 3D models on a laptop. A camper learns how to make 3D models on a laptop. (Photo: Courtesy)

Big Idea has two locations, a main campus in northern Israel that hosts two-week sessions of 280 campers each, and a new location near Netanya that offers one-week sessions “for those parents who want the amazing camp experience, but feel they need to try a week first to see if it fits their child,” Gad said. Campers can also “double the fun” by enrolling for two sessions and take trips around Israel between them. (These trips are also available to take after a single session.)

Originally inspired by the time founder Dotan Tamir spent at a tech camp in the U.S., Big Idea is coming full circle via partnerships to create tech day camps within America including in Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey, with more to come. In Israel, it runs a summer day camp for the employees of branch offices of tech companies like IBM, Intel and Microsoft.

And last year, Big Idea launched a post-high school gap year program for 18- to 21-year-olds that Gad calls “a head start into the high-tech world.” The five- to nine-month program offers intensive workshops and internships at top Israeli high-tech companies. “The valuable hands-on experience will give you an advantage that's vital in the hi-tech industry,” he says. “And you’ll have the time of your life exploring Israel from top to bottom and make friends and memories to last a lifetime.”

Kids learn the ins and outs of virtual reality technology at the camp. Kids learn the ins and outs of virtual reality technology at the camp. (Photo: Courtesy)

The campers include both elementary and high school aged children. The campers include both elementary and high school aged children. (Photo: Courtesy)

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