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Virtual Summer Camp Uses 'Minecraft' To Teach Digital Skills

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear now about a distinct kind of summer camp. It may not even meet your definition of summer camp because you don't spend much time outside. Instead of sleeping in cabins, the campers get to build them virtually inside the wildly popular videogame Minecraft. It's a new and nationwide program from an organization called Connected Camps. Youth Radio's Kasey Saeturn reports.

KASEY SAETURN, BYLINE: We are in a basement computer lab at City Hall in Richmond, Calif. where more than 20 kids are clicking away as part of a Summer of Minecraft camp. Just in case you're not familiar with the videogame Minecraft, I had 9-year-old Lelani Orrejola explain it.

LELANI ORREJOLA: Minecraft is all about, like, blocks. It's like - it's just, like, all about, like, building.

SAETURN: The kids here can build just about anything they can imagine out of big, pixelated blocks. And educators like camp organizer Jenna Burrell see Minecraft as a tool to teach STEM skills like the fundamentals of circuitry.

JENNA BURRELL: Oh, you're going to show me your house.

SAETURN: 10-year-old Jaqui Chavarria shows off what she's created.

JAQUI CHAVARRIA: So the blue part is mine and the boy's house, and the white house is the snowman's house.

BURRELL: The snowman's house. So, a snowman lives there?

JAQUI: And security.

BURRELL: Security.

SAETURN: Jaqui might think she's only playing, but just to get around the game she's mastering sophisticated computer simulations. The code she's typing onto the screen is way over my head.

BURRELL: How long did it take you to make that?

JAQUI: We just did it yesterday. We finished yesterday.

BURRELL: Oh, cool. Do you know how to take a screenshot?

JAQUI: F3?

BURRELL: F2. You should take a screenshot, and we can put it on the Tumblr blog.

SAETURN: Around the country, organizers say there are more than 2,000 kids participating in the Summer of Minecraft camp, and many don't even meet face-to-face. They telecommute, logging in from home in their pajamas. That's how 17-year-old camp counselor Ryan Dempsey gets to work. But there was this one day a few weeks ago.

RYAN DEMPSEY: July 22, 2015 the Minecraft authentication service got DDoS'd.

SAETURN: DDoS'd? I know - confusing, right? That's when hackers spam messages to make a server crash.

DEMPSEY: It was really frustrating.

SAETURN: Minecraft servers went down worldwide. It was kind of like when camp gets canceled because of rain or everybody has to clear the swimming pool because someone - you know. And there's another way this camp of the future is like any other summer camp - socialization - except the virtual kind. And much of Dempsey's job is to keep it positive.

DEMPSEY: They get mad that they lost, and they will call people names.

SAETURN: Keep in mind the campers are, like, half my age - I'm 20.

DEMPSEY: A lot of it is like - you're mean or stupid or idiots or, like, a lot of he-said, she-said.

SAETURN: Learning online social skills is vital, says Caroline Knorr. She's an editor for Common Sense Media, an organization that helps parents make informed choices about kids' media and technology.

CAROLINE KNORR: Understanding that there's other people on the other side of the screen is really one of the most essential skills that kids can learn. That's what leads to empathy.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER: Oops! Sorry, dude!

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER 2: Hey, protect me. Just let me heal, that's all I need.

SAETURN: Back in Richmond 10-year-old Jaqui who has dreams of becoming a construction worker one day is focused on what she's going to create right now.

JAQUI: I wanted to build a swimming pool and a library.

SAETURN: Why do you want to make a library?

JAQUI: Because I like reading books. And - oh yeah, and I was also going to build a computer lab.

SAETURN: Jaqui could build anything, yet she chooses pixelated computer labs and libraries. Maybe there's hope for us yet. For NPR News, I'm Kasey Saeturn...

INSKEEP: ...Who produced that story with Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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