Building the Future iMake iLearn

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Teaching code to elementary and middle school students can be a key component in sparking curiosity and problem-solving skills, potentially leading to career choices in science and engineering that will help address the challenges facing our planet.

The first time I really considered teaching code to my students was during a DENSI (Discovery Education Network Summer Institute) presentation in Bozeman, Montana as I watched Wes Fryer’s eight-year-old daughter stand in front of an audience of more than 125 adults and share with obvious pride her Scratch projects. Rachel’s passion, creativity and enthusiasm were infectious and led me to believe that my students would be interested in creating and developing similar projects. I returned home and began doing research on the tools and programs that were available.  Coding in Scratch was a great start, but I knew I wanted to offer more, which lead to the creation of our after-school robotics program two years ago.

With support from my administration, the program was designed to run in two eight-week-long sessions, one in the fall and one in the spring, each sized to accommodate a maximum of 50 students in Grades 4 through 8.

The fall session was designed to introduce the students to basic coding concepts using a software program called Microworlds to animate virtual characters.  Participants learned about movement, direction, coordinates and how to break down a goal into individual components. Each student finished the session by creating a custom game.

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Microworlds EX is a software tool designed to enable students to image, design, create and produce animated projects using problem-solving and critical thinking skills. The program is based on the classic LOGO language concept, where the student uses a virtual turtle as the main character. Projects begin by “hatching a turtle” and then writing the necessary code to make it follow a series of instructions to achieve a goal.  The cost for Microworlds is $99 for a single license and $1,399 for a site license. Our school used revenue from the after-school program registration ($50 per student/per session) to cover the cost of this software.

During the spring session, students applied concepts learned during the fall session to program LEGO robots, working diligently to assemble the hardware and write the programs to make the robots move, make sounds, and interact with the real world.  My school purchased 14 LEGO Mindstorm sets and the associated software program, enough for students to work in teams of three or four.  Each team began to design and build a functioning robot that could follow commands, including speaking, moving in various directions, following a color line with the use of a sensor, and hitting a ball.Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 11.49.57 AM

There are a number of on-line resources available to teach your students how to navigate and use the LEGO software. We found the video tutorials from the STEMcentric site, www.stemcentric.com/nxt-tutorial/ to be clear and easy to follow.

In addition the LEGO for Education website at education.lego.com can provide you with just about everything you need, ranging from spare parts to design ideas, downloadable design guides and support.

After sixteen weeks of work across two academic sessions, the students demonstrated their robot coding accomplishments by completing a number of increasingly difficult challenges. After two years of “in house” preparation and skill development, we hope to form a school team to participate in the FLL (First Lego League) challenge next year.

It is difficult to convey the excitement and enthusiasm of the students, so I thought I would do it through a video compilation of clips. Enjoy!

http://youtu.be/2TtTsCwn4Fk

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