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How robots and our school's buddy program bring computer science to life

How robots and our school’s buddy program bring computer science to life


Pairing kindergarten and grade 5 students together to code and play with robots turns into a rich computer science experience for everyone

Coding and robots are both natural tools for encouraging collaboration in the classroom. At Sewickley Academy, we have taken that collaboration to the next level by having Grade 5 students step into mentoring roles for our kindergarteners who are just being introduced to computer science. Here’s how we did it.

From Reading to Robotics

Recently, our PreK through Grade 12 independent school has been working to include more computer science opportunities across all grade levels. These classes are a distinguishing factor of a Sewickley Academy education.

When students, especially our youngest learners, work with robotics, they are learning coding skills through what they see as fun play. With the excitement of bringing these little robots to life, they often don’t realize that they are learning foundational concepts and skills that future STEM learning will build upon.

We started with one KIBO, which is a modular robot designed to be used in education. KIBOs can be programmed visually using wooden coding blocks printed with various movement and behavior commands. They are great for students who are still learning to read and are a fun and easy way to bring robotics and coding into the classroom with our youngest learners.

Grade 5 and kindergarten homeroom teachers had already been working together to pair the older students with younger learners to read to them. Both groups of students were thoroughly enjoying the partnership and it seemed natural to progress from reading to robotics. The kindergarten teachers asked the Grade 5 students to first explore the robot, then help their younger buddies participate in the experience. We purchased enough KIBO kits to allow 10 teams to code and play together.

Off and Running

Grade 5 just leapt into their leadership positions. We explained to them that, though the robots were designed for little children, the concepts underlying them are the same ones underlying exciting technology like self-driving vehicles. Some of them said, “Oh yeah, my dad works on self-driving cars,” and they all seemed to understand and go right for it. In the classroom, they embraced the opportunity to serve as mentors and take responsibility for their little buddies.

We had a Remake Learning night with a computer science focus last year, and some of the Grade 5 students volunteered to show off the robots. Just as with their kindergarten buddies, Grade 5 encouraged the visitors to experiment with sounds, light, and motion, playing together to accomplish their own objectives. The children and their parents who attended were so excited to join them and discover what they could do.

Our kindergartners also loved the buddy program. Because we have 10 robots, the classes had to take turns. In the beginning, when one group had their first visit while others were still waiting, the kindergarten students were anxious to work with their buddies: “When is my buddy coming?” They were excited about the robots, certainly, but the relationship with an older student was also a very big deal to them. Students learn differently in a peer-to-peer situation: The kindergartners hung on every detail the fifth graders shared, and the Grade 5 students eagerly stepped up to maturely guide their buddies.

Exceeding Expectations

Pairing the kindergartners with Grade 5 mentors not only kept them engaged, but it also encouraged them to push their coding skills farther by tackling bigger problems than they might have otherwise done in an environment of only younger children.

For example, the kindergarten students have small stuffed animals in their classroom that they just love, and they wanted to mount one on the robot’s art platform. Some of the Big Buddies helped them figure out how to attach it, and then they all worked together to program their animal robot vehicle to drive around the classroom.

Other children wanted their robot to leave the room and go outside, which included turning, driving out the door, and navigating down a big step. To help the robot negotiate the step, they made a ramp out of a book, then programmed the robot to roll down the ramp outside. It was actually a fairly complicated journey, based on quite a complex algorithm for young students to undertake.

Looking to the Future

The year this program started, we did not have dedicated time in the Grade 5 schedule for learning how to code and use the robots. Their teachers were extremely generous in finding time for their students to spend with me learning how to work with KIBO.

Both the kindergarten and Grade 5 teachers who participated saw big benefits for their students. These include Grade 5’s pride in positive leadership and the kindergartners’ desire to learn. With PreK through Grade 12 on one campus, our administration encourages work across divisions and disciplines. Computer science instruction with the Big Buddies program is a great example of the effectiveness of this initiative. We are preparing for our first buddies’ visit of  2022-2023 and expect to further enhance the program this year.

For example, Grade 5 is currently learning to code in Scratch. They used this programming language to create an animation about something important to them, such as a sport they love or their favorite animals playing. They will share this work as a way of introducing themselves to their new kindergarten partners when they meet.

Additionally, rather than teaching small groups of kindergarten students a few basic ideas about assembling and using the robots before meeting their buddies, as I did last year,  this year I will give their Big Buddies the responsibility to introduce the robots, including how to put them together and how to make them move.

As educators, it is our job to help students connect with the material we want them to learn. Sometimes the best way to do that is to get out of the way and let them connect with each other first.

Related:
Give teachers ownership to make computer science a success
Computer science classes have an equity issue–some NYC educators are trying to change that

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