The children enrolled in Computers4Kids’ Hauntings Smart House Camp were hard at work, building spooky sound boards and carving headstones from large chunks of foam.
A bulletin board covered with drawings leaned against the wall. Headless people, falling ceilings, and flying demons were just a few of the depictions hung up, sketched in colorful markers.
“I was hoping killer clowns could stay out of this,” Matt Burke, Computers4Kids Clubhouse Coordinator, said. “But no luck.”
The camp is a two-week collaboration with The University of Virginia’s Brown College Hauntings on the Hill. Thirteen campers work as a product design team to create a portion of Hauntings on the Hill, an annual Halloween haunted house at UVa.
“[The camp] is a ‘design firm’ who’s based in a set of values including empathy, prototyping, ideation, and things like that that have been identified,” Burke said. “They’re attempting to make an interface for this haunted house that is both effective for their client and their wants and desires and the user so that their experience would be one of fun and horror.”
The campers are working with UVa engineering professor Reid Bailey to create the combined smart house and haunted house. Though a theme will soon be selected by the campers, they are given the freedom to explore whatever comes into their minds.
Few rules are set on the children’s creative decisions, but Andrea Khattabi, a Brown College representative working closely with the campers, said she did have to draw the line when many of the ideas involved fire.
“The kids can create and do whatever they would like as long as it’s in common sense and our safety rules,” she said.
The campers met with Khattabi and others earlier in the week to get a sense of the space they will be using and to speak with their client Brown College. Now with the location in mind, the campers have begun to prototype their ideas, fleshing out the possible themes.
“In these two weeks of the camp, I think realistically we hope to have a really good theme, all of the different components figured out, and some degree of a functional prototype for each of these components,” Bailey said. “Between this camp and October, there’s going to be more work that has to happen, but we can do that through C4K’s afterschool program.”
The Hauntings camp is just one of four camps to be held over the summer by C4K, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the gap between Charlottesville and Albemarle youth who can afford a computer at home and those who cannot.
Through mentorship and open hours in the clubhouse, a room equipped with a woodworking station, computers, a recording studio and more, the organization hopes to prepare its members for life after C4K. With 175 members, all of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, C4K averages 55 visitors a week.
“At C4K we’re all about having fun, making, playing, but also getting real, professional work-ready skills,” Lizzie Hoeppner, program director, said. “The computers and software that we have are all current with industry standards, because we need our youth to be ready to jump into the world, whether that’s college or career, after they graduate out of our programs.”
Many children enrolled in the Hauntings camp choose to stay at C4K after the camp ends each day at 12:30 p.m., either continuing the projects that they are working on or exploring something else. The afternoons are also open to all members of C4K, who come in for various reasons.
“It could be to come in and play and explore the resources or it could be to invent the next billion-dollar product and be a 16-year-old billionaire,” Burke said. “The hope is you can find something that you really love and enjoy to do and potentially do more of that and less of the stuff that you don’t necessarily want to do.”
Khattabi and the other Brown College staff are excited for the collaboration with C4K. Khattabi, working from Connecticut, participated in the meeting between the campers and the Hauntings’ staff via Skype and noted the children’s motivation about the project.
“I think what surprised me the most was how enthusiastic all of these kids were,” Khattabi said. “I was part of an afterschool program growing up and it was sort of more of a place for kids to sit and wait for their parents to pick them up or until they had to go home. But all of these kids seem super interested.”
It’s that level of excitement that C4K feels is so important to their mission and all the programs that they organize. While many of the children’s efforts and prototypes will not come to fruition for the Brown College Hauntings on the Hill, C4K feels the experience of learning and creating is just as valuable as the final project.
“Today, I don’t know if any of this stuff is going to make it in the end, but they’re all up and they’re all doing stuff in different levels of engagement,” Bailey said. “The trick is that every kid here has to have something they’re excited to be working on.”