High-tech summer learning: Wilson County Schools technology camps feature engineering, augmented reality

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Click the play button to watch a video from Wilson County Schools technology camps.
Drew C. Wilson | Times
A'yanna Stevens, a fourth-grader from Wilson, releases a balloon-powered car while participating in a technology camp at Barnes Middle School last week.
A'yanna Stevens, a fourth-grader from Wilson, releases a balloon-powered car while participating in a technology camp at Barnes Middle School last week.
Drew C. Wilson | Times

Kennedy Graves firmly held the point of a compass and etched a perfect circle on a Styrofoam plate.

“You have to try to be accurate. If you’re not, then you can try again,” said the 10-year-old, who is one of 180 Wilson County children participating in technology camps this week at Darden Middle School.

Graves was making wheels for a balloon-powered car, one of several mind-challenging projects in the rocketry portion of the day camp.

“It has been very fun. I am creating new ideas and getting creative to build even bigger things,” Graves said.

Later in the day, children affixed tail fins to soda bottles and launched them into the sky with water and air pressure.

“I like engineering,” Graves said. “I want to work at NASA when I grow up. I want to engineer rockets or maybe even go into space.”

The three-day camps are for children from third through 12th grades.

Natalie Mercer, instructional technology facilitator at Darden Middle, was a leader in the Creepy Camp Out breakout camp, where students solved various problems and puzzles.

“It is modeled similar to escape rooms, which are becoming very popular right now, but it really involves all of the four Cs as far as the students are concerned,” Mercer said. “They need to collaborate and communicate with each other. They need to use their critical thinking skills to solve the different puzzles.”

Chris Beneck, Wilson County Schools technology facilitator at Hunt High School, said each child gets to go to all three camps during the course of the week.

Beneck said the infusion of electronic technology and computer applications into camp activities has changed the way camps are conducted.

“When I became an educator 23 years ago, none of this was even a light on the horizon,” Beneck said.

Beneck started teaching when chalkboards and overhead projectors were high technology.

“Teaching Generation Z at this point without technology would be impossible,” Beneck said. “They are so hooked into it that it is the only way that we are going to be able to reach them. If we can harness those resources and kind of morph those things to our benefit, I think that’s what we need to do, so that’s what we are trying to do here, kind of showing them these things that are fun but also how they can be educational and useful to us.”

The use of iPads and other electronic, programmable devices is a core component to learning in today’s schools.

“They have absolutely reached out into every area of education at this point,” Beneck said.

Among the more popular activities in the STEAM lab were Sphero Minis, robots controlled through a computer application.

“At its base level, it is a radio-controlled device run through Bluetooth so you can drive it,” Beneck said.

Students drove the ping-pong-sized balls down the hallway at Darden like they were radio-controlled cars of yesteryear.

Using various levels of programming, students can use coding to perform tasks with the Spheros.

“I can alter its complexity for the age group that I am working with,” Beneck said.

In the STEAM camp, six students sat at a table with an iPad in one hand and a Merge Cube in the other. Each student was totally engrossed.

“Merge cubes has been a huge hit in the technology world,” said Christine Mitchell, technology facilitator at Speight Middle School. “It is a way for the students to experience augmented reality. Augmented reality is basically changing your world. The students take apps that are loaded on the iPads and they are able to experience different games and activities with this cube that just is a dollar.”

The camera feature built into the iPad orients itself to the Merge Cube.

“It takes their cube and basically turns it into a piece of land and they are able to build blocks and they are able to dig and see the core of the land and build whatever comes to mind,” Mitchell said.

Some apps have games and others have educational activities.

One turns the cube into a human skull and then it shows students what the different parts are called.

Camper Lydia Simons, 10, used her Merge Cube to fly a plane through a cave.

“It alters reality,” Simons said. “It makes the cube look like it is a different world.”

Cara Patterson, technology facilitator at Elm City Middle School, said the camps enable students to think outside the box.

“You have all different learners and that is what we are seeing in camp,” Patterson said. “You have visual. You have auditory learners and very creative ones. We don’t have to give them a lot of direction. When they came in today, this group was very eager to get started right away. They were already building before we even gave them directions. It really takes that creative mind and puts it to use. They know that they are learning, but they are not learning with a book and paper and a pen and a teacher lecturing. We are just the facilitators walking around helping them if they need it, but they are in control of their learning.”

The free camps are sponsored by Wilson County Schools.