One teacher describes the big impact robotics, coding, and STEM has had on her students

robotics-stem

I love every aspect of programming—the frustration, the creativity, everything. I taught myself and now I’m lucky enough to teach students how to code, build robots, and design mobile apps. I’m there to guide them, but the students, like me, are really learning these skills through their own hard work.

I think everyone should learn how to program and of course I’m no exception. My transformation from librarian-turned-tech facilitator to coding teacher started with a back room full of old busted computers. My school didn’t know what to do with them so I decided to fix them up and make them useful. Then I started thinking, “What else can I do?” I read something about Arduino and soon I was tinkering with parts, building, and programming anything I could get my hands on. It became a hobby.

When I moved to Plaquemine High School, near Baton Rouge, our principal had just written a big grant for the Dow Corp. to create a STEM program featuring elective classes in robotics and game design for 9-12th graders. When we got it, he asked me to design the curriculum, attend trainings, and teach the courses. It was a dream come true. Now I get to help students develop the creativity, logic, critical thinking, and career skills they need for the future. Here are seven reasons why every school should consider doing the same.

(Next page: why you can afford it and 6 other reasons)

1. You can probably afford it.
I used to think that robotics was prohibitively expensive for schools, but I recently spoke at the LACUE conference in New Orleans and was invited by some STEM teachers to attend a workshop on SeaPerch, which is an underwater robotics program, and the parts are dirt cheap. There’s no programming, but you do get to learn how to solder. Robotics can be done on the cheap if you’re willing to get creative. And game design is almost free. All you have to have are laptops for every student. That’s the only expense.

2. Anyone can program, and everyone should
Everyone needs to learn how to program a computer; it’s just a good skill to learn. It teaches you to adopt an engineering mindset, a step-by-step way of making things work. It’s also a lot of fun. With my high schoolers I’m using a modified version of C++ called EasyC for robotics and Scratch for game design. When I say anyone can program, I mean it. An elementary teacher recently asked me if she should consider introducing programming to her second grade class. “Would the kids understand it?” she wondered. “Heck yes,” I told her, and of course her students would understand! With some of the coding programs out there you don’t even need to know how read as long as you can recognize shapes and put things in order.

3. Teach students to think like a computer
The students using Scratch are learning solid programming skills. They understand the thought process. The biggest thing I have to teach them is to think like a computer in that very logic-driven way. I tell them all the time, “You’re your own best teacher.” At first they don’t like to hear that. They think it means they have to go off and learn something without a guide. Of course I’m there to help them but it’s a hard subject to teach and especially to put into natural language what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want this sprite to move so many spaces, you have to distill or translate that into Scratch or EasyC and then go from there. That’s what I mean when I tell them to think like a computer.

4. And teach students how to channel frustration productively
One of the best skills students in my classes learn is how to use frustration and embrace it. If you’re learning a musical instrument or something new, frustration can make you give up if you don’t get it right away. But in this class you just have to use your frustration wisely. Use that frustration to try harder, to debug smarter. I let them walk away for a few minutes if they have to and come back and try again. Part of that just comes with maturity, but I think my students are now on the fast track.

(Next page: getting girls involved and turning electives into careers)

5. Get girls invested
I don’t have many girls in my classes, but the ones I do have I’m seeing them really open up. They’re thinking in ways that unfortunately girls often aren’t encouraged to think. It’s a bizarre phenomenon but it never occurs to some of them that they can program a computer or build a robot. They may think it’s a masculine thing. It’s the same with video games. This isn’t something girls tend to continue investing themselves in past age six because there aren’t many video games that appeal to girls in a general way. So I’m trying to get a real computer science experience for my girls.

6. Students are thinking long-term about STEM
In my game design class we’re making Android apps through MIT’s App Inventor. Basically, we’re using an emulator and making mobile apps. I’m always showing my students news clips about the video game industry and they’re so amazed by the thought of being able to sell an app on the Google Play store and keep the money. Many of my kids play a lot of video games and now they see inside this world and they absolutely love it.

7. Students will let their creativity run wild
This is only my first year of this class but already I’ve been impressed by what the students have produced. Mostly they’re things I never would have thought of! Recently we learned about the broadcast function in Scratch, which is basically a bunch of “if, then” statements (e.g. when the left mouse button is clicked, it triggers a response of some type). I figured that this was an excellent format for dialog, or more specifically, jokes. I gave them an assignment to write a program that where two sprites told a knock-knock joke, and encouraged them to write their own material. They came up with some doozies but their projects were so creative. It’s amazing the way students can infuse their own creativity and make a project their own.

Lynn Paul is a former school librarian who now teaches game design, robotics, and engineering at Plaquemine High School in Louisiana.