Coding is a necessary skill in today’s world, but it is relatively challenging to master, especially for kids. Its complexity is not necessarily because it is incomprehensible, but because it is a new concept for most students. This is especially the case for students in inner-city schools where technology is inevitably scarce due to systemic factors beyond the students’ control.
With numerous programming languages available, it can take time to pick a starting point. Educators have found a solution to this problem: gamification. Platforms like CoderZ offer virtual programming services where children can learn code through games. These games make learning code both fun and engaging for kids.
Through the CoderZ Robotics curriculum, kids learn to create, manage, and communicate with cyber robots in a virtual setting by inputting code. Block code is used because it is easier for children to understand and execute instead of complex text-based code. Learning is more accessible because virtual robots do not require hardware, space, or other associated costs.
I used the CoderZ League platform to help my students develop basic coding skills as they played their way through entertaining bite-sized missions. Once I saw how they possessed both drive and tenacity, they participated in a virtual robotics competition–the Fall 2022 CoderZ League Robotics Competition. The competition involved simple and complex tasks completed by the robot that the students programmed, such as direction of movement and angles of rotation to instruct the robot on how it should move to complete its mission.
Some of the missions the students completed during this competition:
- Robogolf – Students had to push golf balls into the golf holes. They used protractors in an applied setting to measure the angle the robot had to turn, and measured the distance to determine how far the robot had to move. The angular- and distance-value derived were not always whole numbers. Nonetheless, they had to beat a timer as well, which added to the complexity.
- Disco Blocks – Students had to get their robot to a target. They had to compute by adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. The path they chose determined whether or not they would score as high as possible.
- Maze Madness – Students measured the distance the robot needed to move before it could turn to reach its target. This mission was challenging as the distance was not always a whole number. The value might have been a decimal, which was perfect because we started the school year off learning about decimals in 5th grade. As such, integrating robotics and coding supplemented the standards-based instruction that was already occurring in my classroom and enabled students to apply the content. Nonetheless, students were exposed to content pertaining to the end-of-year standard of measurement because they needed to measure the distance or angle the robot had to travel. Consequently, on a recent benchmark assessment, students made significant growth within that domain, which is typically seen at the end of the school year after that unit is taught.
CoderZ League Robotics is founded on using block-based code and game-missions to engage and teach children about programming. Grounded in STEM, these exercises help kids develop computational thinking and technical ability, which improves their real-world problem-solving skills. Students must adapt to complete further missions and challenges, thereby strengthening their resolve and developing skills they can use beyond the classroom setting.
In particular, the CoderZ platform offers a complete curriculum for programming cyber robots. Educators who wish to teach coding can do so even if they are not skilled in programming or robotics. All they have to do is follow the curriculum and learn with their students. However, this is also limiting because educators cannot create new challenges for students to complete. They must stick to what is provided on the platform. Nevertheless, it is an engaging experience that helps introduce children to complex concepts in a fun way.
Programming: Efficiency, Automation, Replicable Actions
I found the CoderZ virtual robotics program to be an excellent teaching tool due to its carefully curated platform. A high-quality program should contain features that enhance its efficiency, automation, and replicable actions.
This program fulfills these criteria in the following ways.
- Efficiency – Code efficiency refers to the dependability, speed, and programming technique used to develop an application’s code. It is the most critical factor in ensuring peak performance as it minimizes resource consumption and completion time. On CoderZ, any changes to the code are reflected immediately on the simulation pane. This gives the students instant feedback on their projects.
- Automation – Automation uses technology to complete tasks with as little human interaction as possible. In computing, it is typically accomplished through a program, a script, or batch processing. Students learn automation on CoderZ as they can input code that operates the virtual robots without further manipulation. Automation simplifies the processes, making it easier for the machine to complete repetitive tasks.
- Replicable actions – This term defines a sequence of actions that enables the efficient use of limited resources while reducing unwanted variation during program development and execution. CoderZ achieves this by color-coding its command-blocks making it easier for kids to identify patterns in the code. This differentiation enables inclusion among diverse learners (i.e., students with special needs, English Language Learners, etc.). Replicating tasks using code helps students understand the basis of the simulated action, as they can match parts of the program with the actions they produce.
Block-Based versus Traditional Text-based Programming
In the past, programming involved using a mouse and keyboard to type out text-based code. This can be complex for children, especially when it comes to internalizing syntax. These are the rules that define the structure of a programming language. Furthermore, traditional input can make programming abstract and challenging for young students who benefit from visual and auditory learning.
Block-based coding has emerged as a tool to introduce students to coding. It allows them to explore these concepts in a friendly environment. These systems use colorful, draggable blocks that simulate coded language. Students choose functions from color-coded categories and combine them in a canvas work area to create a sequenced program. The benefit of block programming applications or websites is that the categories are clearly defined. There are blocks for adding specific functions, such as movement, control, and other variables.
However, block-based programming is only useful to a point. Once students are comfortable with block-based code, it is crucial to introduce them to text-based code. While block-based code is fun and engaging, text-based programming languages have real-life applications in computer science. Educators should let students experience both block-based and text-based coding. When students are ready, they should transition from blocks to text, as text-based code for projects will be the most marketable in the industry.
Other Lessons Learned
The CoderZ virtual robot competition is effective in helping students with STEM learning. However, I was surprised that the program also taught my students practical life-skills as well. They include:
- Teamwork – The kids worked together to ensure they selected the correct functions for each mission to win. It involved collaborating to figure out the most efficient way to program the robot to complete the missions. The competition cultivated teamwork, which can apply to other activities both inside and outside the classroom as well as ultimately in the workplace.
- Resilience – The missions were not always successful the first time or the way to program the robot was not always straightforward due to time-constraints or terrain, so the kids had to learn how to deal with frustration throughout this competition. In such instances, students had to revise the code as many times as necessary to get it working right. Frustration is a problem they will face when using language-based code because a minor syntax error invalidates the entire code. They are bound to face discouraging moments while learning and in life. This skill strengthened their resilience to such frustration.
- Relationship Building – I built relationships with the kids by leveraging tech, which kids love, and talking about non-school things in this casual setting (i.e., not school or academic). This helps develop the whole child. It also leads to kids wanting to understand complex mathematical concepts like decimal-numbers, angles, patterns, and measurement because they feel as though they are in a safe environment where they can take risks. The notion of “it takes a village” was apparent because of the direct and indirect support from various administrators: Dr. Herbert Blackmon (Principal), Dr. Taylor Greene (Assistant Principal), Minnie Lawson-Cook (Technology Coordinator), Flora Maria Echols (Instructional Coach), Dr. Mark Sullivan (Superintendent), Dr. Gwendolyn Tilghman (Instructional Superintendent), and Dr. Marsha Savage (Learning Operations Specialist).
Now that the months of hard work and the competition has concluded, members of the school and greater community are trying to raise funds for the teams to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I hope the experience and opportunity will not only broaden their level of exposure, but will continue to encourage them to excel academically and to engage within the field of STEM.
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