Critical Skills: Middle Schoolers Learn Technology in a Fun Way

Middle Schoolers Canaan Wallace, left, and Home Hacker leader Andruss Black solder wires.

 A Home Hacker Camp held in Biltmore Lake is taking a hands-on approach to teaching middle school aged kids about technology.

What started out as just a small program teaching kids about electronics in a basement is now a booming summer activity that is continuing to grow each year.
The Home Hacker Camp, which is offered in the home of Francie Black in Biltmore Lake, is focused on teaching kids critical STEM (science technology engineering and math) skills in a fun and engaging way with hands on interactive projects.  Learning how to solder, build robots, work with sensor tech and use arduino boards are critical skills needed to help students be successful in society.
The new project this year was having campers make a “Google Home/Amazon Alexa” device that the kids can ask questions to.  The device can answer questions like complex math problems, what the weather is going to be like today, and more and the device responds audibly. 
“The camp is very interactive through visual, audio and hands on learning,” said Black. ” Every child works with their own robot, programs it and gets to take it home to work on it further.  The robot and the code they write are theirs to keep.”
To make the Google Home/Alex device,  the campers each soldered wires and parts, assembled components, edited the code and uploads it all to the Raspberry PI device. 
“We chose the home voice response system because we felt the kids would be fully engaged in the project,” Black said. “We select projects that the kids will further use and enjoy at home, so they can continue to learn after camp.  They can also show it off to friends and family.
“The kids love the home voice response system,” she added. “It took about three hours to build and when each child tested theirs at the end to see if it worked, it was really exciting.  The children lit up and there were lots of high fives around the room.”
Currently, the camp is broken up into two levels. In the Level 1 session, campers build robots, learn to program them using Scratch Programming language, upload code to the robots, and make them do fun things like chase their cat or dog. 

The Home Hackers also “train” their robot to drive in squares, avoid obstacles and do a line follower sensor project.  On the last night, they build a sound reactive “Disco Dot” that lights up and changes colors when it hears sound.  The kids work with Arduino boards, soldering, command line programming. 

In the Level 2 session, campers dig into advanced programming with their Robots. They also do an intro to Java programming session where they learn about computer syntax, methods and calling libraries of code.
On the last night of Level 2  was when the campers built their “Google Home / Alexa” device.  During the camp, they also had a FaceTime call with a NASA engineer who talked to the kids about important skills in computer science and engineering careers.
Black said next summer she is looking at adding a Level 3 camp where the kids will build a Mario Cart handheld game.
Home Hacker Camp is expanding again next year due to the current waitlists and schools that are inquiring about the program.  They will also be at the Barnes & Noble Asheville Mall Maker Fair in November.

Home Hacker Camp also offers scholarships for kids with financial needs.  They are covered by our sponsors which include:  Dr. Teague Dentistry, Blue Ridge Orthodontics & Aceto Law.

“We’ve already seen positive results from Home Hacker Camp,” Black said. “The kids are saying it has helped them with their computer science classes at school. Others have professed programming as their future career as a result of the camp.  And, one of our teaching assistant from Chapel Hill, was specifically asked about his role with Home Hacker Camp when applying for a job, which he got.”

Schools, neighborhoods, home school groups, students, who would like to attend or host their own Home Hacker Camp should email  or call 415-260-2425

By Shelby Harrell
About Shelby Harrell
Shelby Harrell is the editor of the Biltmore Beacon, editor of The Guide arts and entertainment publication and is a staff writer for Mountaineer Publishing. Originally from Asheville, she has worked in journalism for seven years and currently lives in Clyde, NC.