Those few short weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas… does anyone do their best work at this time? If my own distraction and forgetfulness are any indication, we are all struggling to hold it together under the twinkly lights. With our six-day rotation cycle at St. Anne’s, I only get to see students in the library three or four times between breaks – and with sugarplums and candy canes dancing in their heads, that short hour or two that we get together can feel like a waste of time. Luckily, there is one sure-fire way to increase student engagement while providing students with worthwhile educational experiences: computer science. So K-8 Computer Science Coordinator Kim Wilkens and I came together again this year to offer The Twelve Days of Tech-Mas, a mini-computer science intensive for students in grades K-6 (click here to check out last year’s Tech-Mas fun!).
There are many engaging Hour of Code resources for the Computer Science Education week happening December 4-10. However, this year, we found ourselves with students that were beyond what the Hour of Code could offer. Through our integrated computer science program, summer programs, and many computer science options for electives and school clubs, our students needed a bigger challenge. So we decided to go with a theme that would be new and exciting for them: robotics.
The idea was born from a book. When I finished Peter Brown’s illustrated novel The Wild Robot last year, I put it in a safe place until I found the perfect group of students to share it with. And this year’s smart, computer-savvy, literature-loving fifth graders turned out to be the perfect group. So to mix two of their favorite things, Ms. Wilkens and I teamed up to offer a book club with a twist: a robotics-themed Makerspace, open to the entire school, designed and run by 5th grade book club members. To get other students on board and drum up interest, we linked the Twelve Days of Tech-Mas’ robotics theme with the upcoming Makerspace. From signage to lessons to games and activities, our library became all robots, all the time!
Instead of creating lesson plans, we approached most of the activities with the kids as engineer explorers, helping us all learn more about robotics. We often kicked things off with something Kim likes to call the “hole in the wall learning”. Inspired by Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the wall” project, the idea is to get students hands-on with the robotics as soon as possible and let them figure out how to test it through trial and error activity. It means the library is loud, messy, and full of empowered students making excellent mistakes.
Here’s how it worked: Fifth grade students read The Wild Robot outside of school and attended robotics workshops during their library time, spending hands-on time with each robot. Eventually, they chose the platform that they would most like to master and help younger engineers learn. Meanwhile, students in grades K-4 and grade 6 would experience robotics activities and challenges during their library time. Each grade had opportunities to try different platforms with different challenges. Kindergarteners used the Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar to bring Eric Carle’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to life. After reading The Giant Jam Sandwich, first graders used BeeBots to complete a course of challenges related to the book. Both K and 1 also got the chance to use LittleBits to create circuits that light up, move, buzz, and more. Second graders wrote original hero stories and then animated and narrated them using Scratch Jr. Third and fourth grade explored with Spheros and Ozobots, worked with Lego Mindstorms, and got a peek behind the scenes remixing digital holiday cards with Mozilla’s awesome online tool, Thimble. Finally, fifth graders were asked to don their engineer hats and explore it all – Code-a-pillar, BeeBot, Spheros, Ozobots and Lego Mindstorm Robotics – in preparation for their Makerspace.
Along with hands-on robotics practice, fifth grade students had other challenges to consider when planning the Makerspace. We asked them to consider: who will be attending? What kind of directions and assistance will they need? What kinds of challenges will kindergarten guests need, versus 8th graders? What will you do if the technology fails? If students don’t listen to directions? Makerspace planners had to step outside of their typical role as students and think as teachers and engineers (and marketers!). Their hard work paid off. Bright and early the morning of the Makerspace (and we mean early – we had to send students away for arriving before 7:30!), nearly 100 students gathered in the library to share their excitement as 5th graders used their expertise to teach and mentor the rest of the school. They lead classmates of all ages through a wide range of challenges and activities. As guests moved from station to station, the fifth graders patiently repeated directions and guided users to try new things, make big mistakes, and never give up.
The Twelve Days of Tech-mas has become a treasured tradition that our students look forward to each year. For Kim and myself, it is a fun and invigorating time of collaboration, and a reminder of how much joy there is in teaching computer science and letting students explore. Providing technology activities this way allows students to test out new skills in a fun, low pressure way. It provides great opportunities to talk about growth mindset and perseverance in an environment with no competitions and no grades. Students get to relax, enjoy themselves, and learn without judgement; a true luxury in the fast-paced and often high-stakes world of education. This year’s “grand finale”, our robotics themed Makerspace, brought the joy and excitement to a whole new level. Additionally, it provided an authentic and meaningful opportunity for fifth graders to act as experts, empowering them to work hard and share their knowledge to help challenge and mentor younger learners. Teaching technology alone is worthwhile, but the real magic happens when students use their skills and creations to help inspire and lift others.