Workshop teaches Edgerton kids about coding

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Jim Dayton
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

EDGERTON—Small red, green and blue squares broke up a thick line of black marker ink on fourth-grader Drew Coombs' sheet of graph paper—just the way he wanted it.

Coombs, a student at Community Elementary in Edgerton, finished his design and fired up a tiny machine called an Ozobot. It rode slowly over the black path and then read the colored pattern, which initiated a response.

Depending on the color-coded sequence Coombs drew, the robot turned, sped up or zigzagged. It was just one station in the school's STEM room, which was filled with kids bouncing among work tables.

The activities were part of National Computer Science Week. Some of the stations might have looked like games, but they taught kids how to write directions to achieve an end result, said Sheila Fox, the district's elementary STEM teacher.

“The way we define coding is creating an algorithm or pattern of sequential steps that they have to do for their device to follow,” she said. “Everything they did dealt with steps of something. Not necessarily just computer coding, but coding in general.”

Sessions such as Monday's—one of roughly a dozen elementary students will participate in throughout the school year—will get kids ready for future classes and improve their career prospects. Not every student will be a software programmer, but nearly every job will require some sort of computer familiarity, Fox said.

The best way to prepare students for that is to expose them at an early age, Fox said.

“I think they're very interested because it's all hands-on. It's motivating. It lends itself well to their style of learning,” she said. “It's visual; it's manipulative; it's kinesthetic. A lot of the learning that's effective in our system today is that.”

She has younger grades do mazes and put story cards in order. As students get older, they move into the independent workshop setting seen Monday.

While some kids drew lines for Ozobots, Miley Kastenmeier and Jenna Kahl trailed behind the “coding caterpillar” as it meandered through the classroom. The caterpillar's body was made of different directional buttons arranged by the girls.

Once in sequence, the caterpillar followed its directions and inched left, right and forward. It only needed assistance when it ran into an obstacle.

Linc Foskett and Luke Huber worked next to each other using Chromebooks. Both played online coding games that required them to successfully create directions to advance to the next level.

Both thought the coding games were fun and said they would maybe consider doing programming for a job.

“I've learned more how to fix the bugs. A bug is a mistake in your code,” Foskett said. “As we go on, we don't make as many mistakes. Eventually you'll make a mistake, but then you just got to restrategize.”

Putting a positive spin on mistakes is a teaching point for STEM teachers throughout the district. Learning this subject can be difficult, so students need time to figure it out, Fox said.

She tries to be as hands-off as possible and encourages students to take chances. She wants them to ask “Why didn't it work?” rather than “What did I do wrong?”

“That's one of the biggest things when (teachers) get together and talk about the whole STEM approach is we have to make sure our kids can emotionally handle making mistakes and understand that's an OK thing,” Fox said.

“It's just the idea of accepting the challenge, taking a risk and adjusting if something doesn't work and trying again.”

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