EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The fourth- and fifth-graders at the Joyanne Miller School were more than ready to play with the bird-like robots that teachers Adam Swift and Lynne Kesselman and about a dozen of their students had brought over from the high school last week.
But before they could operate them, the students had to program the robots themselves, using the Snap programming language.
Within minutes, and with just a bit of instruction, the students had their birds going forward and backward, racing each other, and even doing a little dance.
“They’re very easy to program, and that’s the point,” said Swift. “It breaks the stereotype that programming is just sitting and typing code all day.”
The Finch robots are part of an educational loan program from Bird Brain Technologies in Pittsburgh, Pa. Designed for introductory computer science classes, 50 of the Finches are visiting Egg Harbor Township schools this month.
Swift, a computer programming teacher, and Kesselman, who teaches web design, applied for a grant to get the Finches and take them to the elementary and middle-school students. The project is part of the district’s initiative to introduce STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, in the elementary and middle-school grades.
Miller School Principal Latifah Potter said students are required to do two STEM projects a year, and the project is a great way to introduce the fourth- and fifth-graders to robotics.
Supervisor Cynthia James said having the younger students interacting with the teenagers shows them what they can look forward to when they get to the high school.
“This is a nice first step to introduce them to something new, and get over a fear of programming,” she said.
Miller computer teacher Susan Slusarski said she had already introduced the students to a programming language called Scratch, and they loved it.
“They begged me to do another class,” she said. Her students also learn to use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, and she holds keyboarding contests to encourage them to develop proper skills.
The students viewed the Finch project not as a lesson in programming, but as a fun project to get the Finches to do things.
“It’s actually cool,” said Deric Slobodjian, 11, who steered his Finch to follow a classmate.
Jacob Cianci, 9, taught his Finch to do some dance moves, going quickly back and forth.
Jessie Alkins and Anna Knowles, both 10, took on John Paul Nguyen, in a Finch race, and won.
“Let’s do it backwards,” Nguyen said.
The high school students were impressed with how quickly the younger students learned the programming. A couple figured out how to change the colored light in the Finch’s nose.
“They really know what they’re doing,” said high school junior Alvin Abraham.
Kesselman said the project builds on the Hour of Code project the district did in December at all the schools by showing students not just how to code, but how code is used.
“We didn’t know anything when we started in December,” Slusarski said. “We were in awe.”
The EHT Education Foundation funded buses and substitute teachers so Swift, Kesselman and their students can visit the other district schools. The Finches will fly off to another district in April, and Kesselman said she would like to find some funding to buy a few of the $99 robots for the high school Computer Club.
She said the Finches can be used for more advanced programming, and a student at the high school even programmed one to play music, something she cannot do.
“I don’t even know how he did it,” she said of the challenges of keeping up with new technology. “The kids know so much more today, and some may even know more than you.”
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