Code: Learn — Innovative camp links primary programming skills and summer fun

By on July 5, 2017
Third graders Lindsey Menet (left) and Madison Elliott consulted their iPad to figure out what command they need to add to their program. Photos by Kimberly Marselas

Third graders Lindsey Menet (left) and Madison Elliott consulted their iPad to figure out what command they need to add to their program. Photos by Kimberly Marselas

Blue lines zig zag across the floor of Adamstown Elementary School’s cafeteria on a recent Wednesday morning, test strips for 10 bright blue robots and their human partners.

Twenty students in third through fifth grade have gathered here to improve their beginning coding skills, work on communication and find inspiration for careers in science and technology.

There’s also a good dose of math and problem solving, as each team works together to program its robot and troubleshoot errant spins or turns in the wrong direction.

Their goal today: to move their robot along the line, measuring the length between turns and adding sounds, lights and other effects at points designated by fourth-grade teachers Cheryl Frost and Michele Koch. Students enter commands on linked iPads using Blockly, an intuitive app that strings together pieces of code in a visible sequence of blocks rather than the typical Java computer language.

Adamstown acquired a classroom set of the robots — known as Dash and Dot — through a state grant last school year. Dash, and his smaller counterpart Dot, have one giant eye and sensors that allow them to react to their environment and connect to a variety of free apps.

“It’s not just another toy,” Frost told school board members while demonstrating the robots’ capabilities this spring. “I knew what it could do. It’s a phenomenal way to teach coding.”

Dash awaits commands from summer campers in the Cocalico School District.

Dash awaits commands from summer campers in the Cocalico School District.

While some Adamstown students had limited exposure to the robots during the school year, the enrichment camp allows third-through-fifth-grade students from across the district to experiment with in-depth projects and incorporate attachments like ball launchers and bulldozers. Students attend in four-day sessions; the second is slated for Aug. 14-17.

“It’s a good opportunity for students to work with each other and problem solve,” Koch said. “They’re not just learning how to problem solve with their robots but with each other too.”

The camp will culminate in a relay race, in which students have to program three robots to work together to accomplish several tasks and “tag” their partners into the competition.

Though a similar project talks up the bulk of each day, participants clearly have fun learning key concepts. They start each morning with a game, turning Dot into a Magic 8 Ball using variables or playing Steal the Bacon with Dash’s bulldozer attachment.

Adamstown fifth grader Wyatt Benfield used Dot and Dash in his science class with Frost during the school year, and he was eager to come to camp.

“It was really fun,” he said. “I’ve been really interested in coding ever since my brother showed me a coding website.”

For the zig-zag assignment, Wyatt paired off with his friend Nathan Sweigart, a fellow fifth grader who was new to the robots but loves technology and gaming.

The two did so well that Koch challenged them to double their work, sending Dash backward through the same course. They complied with ease, programming their bot to cheer “Yeah!” when he reached the halfway point and when he arrived back home.

Next to them, third graders Madison Elliott and Lindsey Menet worked to adjust their coding when their robot made an extra spin and went off course.

“That was so close!” Madison said, excited by the near success. “We just have to turn right.”

Frost said the ability to fail — and then make corrections or improvements — is one of the best attributes of coding. There are no harsh consequences, and with enough experimentation, students will gain skills, confidence and the curiosity to dig deeper.

Blockly, for instance, gives users the option of peeking behind the kid-friendly blocks to read corresponding Java script.

“The hope is that if they’re doing this in middle or high school, which is something the district is working on, then they’ll already have the basics,” Frost said. “They’ll know what an algorithm is and how to break it apart into smaller steps.”

For now, though, they’re happy completing those small steps and keeping them age appropriate. Some opt to make Dash burp when he completes a task. And when Frost and her daughter Autumn demonstrate how to put on his cape-like launcher, they break out in excited chatter.

“Wow, he’s a super hero!” shouts fourth grader Colin McManimen.


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