Posted on June 6, 2018 by Scot Allen
By Julie Funasaki Yuen
CODING. ROBOTICS. PROGRAMMATIC thinking. In kindergarten? Yup.
For the first time ever, Mid-Pacific kindergarteners are learning to code. Starting this spring semester, all kinders are dedicating an hour each week to learning the basics of coding by programming interactive character stories through the Scratch Jr. coding program; and designing their own robots using Cubelets - specially designed blocks that combine in a variety of ways to form robots.
"I wholeheartedly believe all students at all grade levels have the capacity to learn programmatic thinking," says former Mid-Pacific Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dote. "From deciding what to order for lunch, to figuring out how to best slice a mango, we use programmatic thinking skills in our daily lives."
"Both Scratch Jr. and Cubelets give children the opportunity to create, experiment, and problem-solve," says kindergarten teacher Jennifer Matsumoto. "We teachers are truly working and learning together with the children. It's fun to learn alongside them. They often surprise us with what they create and discover."
During the robotics portion of the class, the students experiment with Cubelets that are made up of four basic building blocks with distinct functions. These blocks are appropriately named "think," "sense," "act" and "battery," and combine to create robots that move differently depending on the students' design. In their first lesson, the kindergarteners discussed the primary purpose of each cube.
"Are there parts that need to be together?" asks teacher Jennifer Matsumoto.
"If you took off the battery, it wouldn't move," answers kindergartener Alessandra.
"If we tried to build a robot without the 'think' cube, do you think it would work?" Matsumoto poses.
"No, because without thinking, it wouldn't know what to do," a student shares.
Following this lesson, the kinders discussed the concept of teamwork and worked on drawings that represented teamwork in a variety of ways.
"Cubelets are a great way to teach programmatic thinking as they are fun, interactive, easy to use, and provide instantaneous feedback," says Dote. "In their first lesson, kindergarteners learned about the different types of Cubelet blocks and their purpose through the lens of teamwork, sharing, and helping one another."
When experimenting with Cubelets during a later lesson, teams of two kindergarteners worked together to build robots by positioning the "battery," "sense" and "act" cubes in a variety of ways, then shared what they learned through trial and error.
"We learned that you can make it (the robot) go really fast, or really slow, or stop," says student Gavin. "If you turn it (the 'sense' knob) this way it goes slower. If you turn it that way it goes faster."
"When building robots, the children have to be keen observers, noticing the position of a cube in the order of cubes, as well as how cubes are positioned in one particular area of the robot," says Matsumoto. "This is when they are able to figure out why something works or doesn't work; how to change direction or speed; and what the different cubes can actually do. We don't tell them how to build a robot, but rather allow the children to discover this for themselves. They learn how to be scientists who experiment and find things out."
Before diving into the coding world of Scratch Jr. and learning how to program onscreen characters using iPads, the kindergarteners practiced giving directional commands and cues to each other by playing the game "Simon Says." Mid-Pacific Educational Technologist Emmett Winters asked the students to come up with their own directional cues and then give their classmates instructions to move a specified number of steps forward, backward, left or right. This concept was then applied when the students began programming the movements of their onscreen characters using Scratch Jr.
"The foundation of Scratch Jr. is sequencing and attention to detail and direction," says Matsumoto. "In order to program a character in a story, the children must first understand 1) how to give clear directions and 2) how to follow specific directions that are given to them. Games like 'Simon Says' help to illustrate this concept. If directions are not clearly given, the person will not know what to do. If directions are not followed specifically, the person is out of the game. In addition, if the children do not understand directional cues (left, right, forward, back) or numbers, instructions will not be provided or followed correctly. When programming characters using Scratch Jr., the children have to be keen observers, and notice why their character is or is not doing what they had intended. They need to figure out 'How will I fix it?'"
"Coding and robotics will play a significant role in our future society," says Winters. "Helping our students learn coding and robotics from the very beginning provides them with a valuable opportunity, and it feels good knowing this will benefit them in the future. It's great that kindergarteners are always so eager to learn something new and exciting."
And it doesn't end in kindergarten.
"Programmatic thinking is a key tenet of our Mid-Pacific technology vision," explains Dote. "Our educational technology team, led by Director of Educational Technology Brian Grantham, is committed to expanding these opportunities for all of our students. First and second graders will start learning programmatic thinking with Dash and Dot, and fifth graders are learning programmatic thinking via Lego EV3 robotics kits. We are also adding programming classes to both the middle and high school next year. The middle and high school classes will teach programmatic thinking using Swift, the programming language that software engineers use to create mobile apps for Apple iOS devices like your iPhone or iPad."
"As our students learn to use algorithms to solve complex problems, a whole new world opens up to them," shares Dote. "Solving the problems of the future through programming is a critical skill that will serve Mid-Pacific students in all facets of their lives. The possibilities are infinite."