By Sarah Colson and Jeff Keeling
A robot named Holly wheeled around the tile floor of a North Side Elementary classroom Thursday. Trailing behind, iPads in hand, were rising third graders Malia Williams (South Side Elementary) and Ali Desjardins (Cherokee Elementary).
The girls weren’t just using the tablet computers to tell the “Dash” robot where to go on the fly. Using one of the five apps they’d learned during four days at a Johnson City school system-wide STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Camp, they had written their own string of computer code.
Holly was performing as programmed. The girls could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that they were learning concepts and skills that will serve them in good stead in the global economy. And Valerie Orfield, who teaches science as a related art at North Side, Johnson City’s STEM school, was elated.
“We want to get more into technology standards, and this is really going into that,” Orfield said. “Technology is embedded in the science standards throughout, so this really is opening some doors for that.”
Orfield, who has taught at North Side since 2005, oversaw one of several sites throughout the school that campers visited each morning. The 90 rising third, fourth and fifth graders learned how to write computer codes with iPads, how to control robots and fly drones, how to extract DNA from a banana, how to use a 3-D printer and more. Six local teachers led each workshop and East Tennessee State University provided 10 masters-level interns to assist as well.
In Orfield’s room, each group of students started the week learning how to program one of 10 “Dash” robots. They had to name the Bluetooth-controlled devices so they could be operated wirelessly from an iPad, and they quickly moved on to five different apps that allow more complex activities by the robot.
After familiarizing themselves with the basics using “Go” and “Path,” the students – who were among around 140 recommended by teachers and then were chosen by lottery to attend – moved to “Wonder,” “Blockly” and “Xylo.” The three apps dealt with English/language arts (Wonder), computer coding (Blockly) and music (Xylo). By Thursday, each “Dash” robot had been joined by a smaller companion, “Dot,” a little round robot the size of a softball.
“I like how you can control them and make them say stuff with the microphone, and how you can make them go any direction you want to,” Desjardins said.
“There’s different programs on here,” Williams chimed in, naming each of the five apps. “Today we’re learning about Xylo.”
The cuddly factor that the Dot robots injected in the fun was a plus for Desjardins. “I also like how they come with Dot, because it’s like, super cute and you can dress them up and stuff.”
Funded through local extended learning dollars, the camp is intended to bridge the gap between classroom learning and hands-on experience. Dr. David Timbs, supervisor of instructional technology for the school system, is in his first year of his role and said the schools realized the increased attention to standardized test scores and wanted to create a way to also encourage a fun learning environment.
“When I arrived in the fall they talked about how we do a lot of things during the school year in order to make sure we’re covering standards, covering the needs of our students who need remediation,” Timbs said. “This is one of those opportunities that we have to do something that is purely enrichment and purely hands-on engagement that really helps students apply what they’ve been learning all year long.”
In North Side’s gym, Indian Trail Intermediate School math teacher Brandie Sanchez seemed as excited as the group of boys who were checking out the results of computer coding they had written to operate a drone.
“These kids have been amazing,” Sanchez said. “For a third grader to program is absolutely amazing for me to see.”
Owen Ryder, who finished fourth grade at Woodland Elementary last month, said he’d enjoyed the drone segment. “We’ve learned how to code them to make them fly to certain spots around the gym.”
Even though he has a drone of his own, Ryder said the STEAM camp experience was more interesting as he had simply used a remote control to operate the other drone. “It’s a nice change. I’ve learned a lot.”
Sanchez is optimistic about technology’s potential to reach all students.
“I feel like it’s extremely important. I think we need to start showing children the true life reality of what you can do. Making them excited to learn stuff that in their future will make them money. Even as a third, fourth and fifth grader, with our new curriculum, we have to start looking for, ‘how is this going to benefit you in the end?’”
“I will take some of what I learned this week with these children and put it into a classroom setting.”
“We want to get more into technology standards, and this is really going into that. Technology is embedded in the science standards throughout, so this really is opening some doors for that.”
The teachers’ perceptions would have pleased Timbs, who talked to News & Neighbor before the camp began.
“One thing we’re really trying to bring a focus on in Johnson City with our approach to technology is to really broaden ours students’ thoughts about their own future,” he said. “Technology isn’t just something you use within a confined setting like comp science, but every facet of our lives and the work place and any potential career has a technology component to it. … We really hope it can grow and be even bigger next summer.”
The students will likely be ready, to hear Orfield tell it. Before camp, she had wished she’d had more time to familiarize herself with the robots.
“ I thought, ‘how am I going to teach this without knowing everything I need to know?’”
She needn’t have worried. “The kids have learned it all. It’s like their brains are wired differently than ours. They know how these apps work. They’re really getting the coding, which is exciting because I think that’s somewhere we can go beyond the robots.”