Tag Archives: computer programming

Reading – Trying – Testing – Changing

With Space Camp under my belt, I’m really looking forward to summer camps and classes. Camp registration is up and while I’m still trying to find a place for the Mindstorms Clinic, I’m reading, trying, changing and testing all sorts of kid-friendly projects.

Reading – Trying – Testing

First and foremost is a heavy focus on HTML, CSS and Javascript. This summer, I am teaching beginning web design for Santa Fe’s College for Kids (CFK) .There are so many things that I want to show the kids and there will be a strong emphasis on writing HTML code. It may be plain, but it provides a good foundation for understanding the structure of web pages. While I anticipate mostly beginning students, I may have some who are already HTML-savvy and ready to jump into cascading style sheets (CSS) or Javascript. I want to be prepared for those students, so I have been working my way through this book, while also building and testing my own prototype sites. I love the deep learning that is happening in my brain. I had forgotten how much fun true web development could be.

Ten years ago, I managed part of my library’s web site using (mostly) Dreamweaver. I didn’t go much further with it at the time because I was enamored with teaching, but now that I am really jumping into CSS I am fully engaged and truly enjoying myself. I definitely see some front-end web development classes in Artisan Education’s future.

A picture from the fabulously talented Sally Mavor. This is from her book, Pocketful of Posies.

A snapshot from the talented fiber artist, Sally Mavor. This is from her book, Pocketful of Posies.

Of course, to balance all of that screen time, I usually have some sort of knitting or sewing project close at hand. My inner artist loves being creative with handwork and I like that I can bring my projects to gatherings, as well as to park outings with my kids. When I’m drawing, I need complete quiet (which rarely happens at my house), so I tend to stick with fiber arts. Therefore, I am really excited to be offering the ‘Making in Action‘ camp this June. Plus, I will be teaching the beginning sewing class for CFK in July. Thank goodness there will be a lot of fiber art to go along with all that programming.

For the summer, I am focusing on hand-sewing and the boys are currently testing out my projects.  This way I can tell which ones need more instructions or perhaps, more choice. I recently found an interesting embroidery-pin project that we’re going to work on this week and I can’t wait.

Enough chatting – I’m off to create. I hope you have a ‘making week’ too!

A picture of a half-traced hand-drawn tiny rocket to be used for embroidery

R’s embroidered design choice. He’s testing a backpack pin project.

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.


It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.






Book Review :: E-Textiles

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the cover of the book e-textiles

Love the cover!


Ages: Teens and Adults
Toth-Chernin, Jan. E-Textiles. Cherry Lake Publishing. Ann Arbor, MI, 2014.

This book is part of the 21st Century Skills Innovation Library series. I have reviewed a couple of their other books (HTML and Game Design) and find them to be inconsistent with regards to content. Sometimes they are spot on, and sometimes the topic is too complex to be adequately covered in 30 pages.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am thrilled that someone is publishing kid-friendly books on these new technological advances, but I don’t think all of these books are as useful as they market themselves to be. This one, in particular, was very scattered and not quite appropriate for their intended audience – middle school age and younger. It’s a thin book and was found in the Juvenile section of my public library – not the teen section and not the adult section.

A picture of the T.O.C. for the book e-textiles

The book includes five chapters covering the basics of e-textiles, sewing with conductive thread, beginning projects, microcontrollers and electroluminescent wire. While there are a few projects given,  none of these projects include pictures – either of the finished product or any step-by-step pictures of the process.

A picture of pages from the book e-textiles

Sewing stitches are really difficult to understand without pictures…especially for kids.

That being said, I was pretty disappointed with this book. I’ve made some e-textiles and I found the descriptions to be too advanced and choppy at best. The author assumes a working background knowledge of e-textiles that is inappropriate for a beginning book. It was as if the author had to cover a variety of topics, but was not given effective page space to do so.

For a 32-page book, it tries to cover too much information and ends up not covering anything in-depth enough to make any sense to the reader. This topic can be quite complicated – especially when they are talking about the use of Arduino microcontrollers, such as the Flora and Lilypad. Both of those microcontrollers were mentioned in the book and require a working knowledge of the Arduino programming language. If the purpose of the book was to introduce the idea of e-textiles – then yes, they are right on the mark. If that’s the case, why would the book include DIY e-textile projects?

A picture of a page from the book e-textiles

My suggestion would be to save your money and check out the project pages provided by the Exploratorium on sewn circuits. Or, for really advanced users, subscribe to AdaFruit’s web vlog on e-textiles.

A picture of a handmade bracelet made from felt with light up LEDs, embroidered to look like an alien spaceship. e-textiles

My homemade, hand embroidered, hard-wired e-textile.

Book Review :: Build Your Own Web Site

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews; to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Build Your Own Web site

Ages 10 and up
Martin, Chris. Build Your Own Web Site (Quick Expert’s Guide). The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.:  New York, 2014.


This age appropriate guide will help young students learn more about the world wide web and the process of making a web site. The book starts out with a brief history of HTML and the significance of some of its properties, such as using tags to display content. The full-color pages will appeal to today’s students and the side bits provide relevant information.

Unfortunately, the book is also disorganized and poorly designed. There are WAY too many callouts. These can give extra information, but can also become a distraction when writing web pages. In-text definitions are a fabulous way to use callouts. Regrettably, the publishers have used callouts to occasionally provide step-by-step information. Consistency is not always easy to discern and that may make it difficult for students to follow along as they build their own web sites.

A picture of the table of contents for the book, Build Your Own Web SiteBuilding a Web Site

After some background information regarding HTML building, the author suggests that we start making our own web page. He begins by providing the tags needed. Unfortunately, any mention of where to type up this information is nowhere near this page. It may have been mentioned at the beginning of the book, but we have forgotten it as we began coding. This chapter needs to start out with a brief description on how to use a text editor – for Windows and Macs. I also didn’t see any mention of saving your document with an HTML extension.

IMG_2068Layout and Instructions

Thankfully, there is a brief sample of the actual code for a simple site. Unfortunately, that is followed by an explanation of ‘nesting,’ but there are no accompanying screenshots. The paragraph refers to the above listing of HTML, but inexperienced students might have a hard time visualizing why nesting is important with such a short bit of code.

Although there are a lot of images and color pictures, I wish there were more useful screenshots. The pictures from this book were taken from Shutterstock, and although they are catchy – actual HTML screenshots would have been much more useful.


After typing our code for a simple document and adding links, the author shows us how to add an image to our page. The author does suggest it’s not okay to swipe images from the web, but he follows that sentence with a brief description of “fair use.” The line regarding fair use is valid, but it may be too complex for students to truly grasp. I would have liked for this topic to receive greater coverage.

There are also not enough step-by-step instructions; too many tidbits are scattered throughout various chapters. For example, knowing how to refresh your page is really important when building web pages. Unfortunately, this tidbit is not mentioned until page 24 – well after someone has theoretically been writing (and saving) HTML pages.

I really like the look and feel of this book, but found it too hard to follow. The author is obviously knowledgeable and included relevant information. Sadly, it’s scattered throughout the book.

IMG_2069Publishing Web Sites

This book does have one advantage over Innovation Library’s Web Design with HTML5. This book mentions how to publish your pages to the world wide web. Since most of these sites require parental permission for under age 13, students can learn more about online safety from a trusted adult. As a parent, I would have liked to see an actual warning about online safety. Instead, the author provides a list of organizations in the appendix.

A picture of the glossary for the book, Build Your Own Web SiteFinal Verdict

In conclusion, I think this might be a valuable asset to a teacher using HTML in the classroom, especially if combined with another book on the mechanics of how to type up an HTML document. The book provides a lot of opportunities to find out small pieces of information about HTML. Unfortunately, I would not recommend this book for a student to use on their own. The information is too random, not well-organized and lacks the appropriate warnings about publishing information online.  I find the organizational structure to be haphazard, which makes it a poor learning tool for self-teaching.

CS For All

A few days ago, President Obama announced a new initiative to promote computer science classes for all students – CS for All. The proposed funding will be $4 billion for states and $100 million directly to schools to fund this initiative. Apparently, it’s even supported by both parties! It’s a definite nod toward the importance of CS principles and certainly what many organizations, like code.org, have been advocating – and the purpose of ‘Hour of Code‘!

A picture from the book, Help Your Kids with Computer Coding.

A picture from the book, Help Your Kids with Computer Coding.

I’m excited right now to be a tech educator – especially one who focuses on programming and robotics. I’m excited to see the shift to this type of learning, especially for kids who might struggle with traditional, paper-based learning, which is usually the case with reading, writing and math. This will give those right-brain learners something to feel confident about. However, I am waiting to see how these programs will eventually play out.

CS for All

My biggest fear is that CS will become one more subject that students are required to learn – rather than integrating it across the curriculum. For elementary-age students, that doesn’t mean sitting them in front of a computer and teaching them to hard code. It means finding age-appropriate resources, such a Robot Turtles, Ozobots, and Lego WeDo kits (3rd grade and younger) and Scratch, mbots, and Lego Mindstorms (in addition to many others) for upper elementary and middle school.

It also means there needs to be a lot of room for creative free expression and in-depth tinkering. Coding is fun and empowering, but there needs to be a focus on mastery and it must have a personal purpose to it (a la Daniel Pink’s research in Drive). I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t want the teaching of computer science to be one more thing that a student has to learn.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. An interactive presentation, designed and programmed by R, age 9.5.

I want Scratch to be integrated into math and language classes – not separated. I want logic games and math games to be integrated into daily lessons – not just pulled out as a ‘CS’ curriculum. I want students to learn how to make presentations to reflect their learning – whether that’s while learning about Greece, the Wright Brothers or the xy-grid. I want them to have time to explore and tinker, not just to memorize a piece of code.

So, I hope the National Science Foundation will look to the creators of Scratch and to Seymour Papert and base their grant funding on that type of CS teaching – creative expression and tinkering – which will lead to more students choosing computer-science-based careers.



Computer Science without Computers

This is the last post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the previous posts about the game, Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, the game of ‘Be the Robot’ and What’s Inside of a laptop.
computer science without a computer - workbooks

These are some resources I’ve found that teach logic and computer science skills – without a computer.

Since I am not a classically trained computer scientist (or programmer for that matter), my use of the term ‘computer science’ may differ from others (here’s a really great explanation of the differences). I use the term vaguely – to imply a lot of different computer-centered activities. That might include logical thinking, seeing things from a different perspective, noticing patterns, finding out about computer parts, learning about key programming concepts, such as repeat loops, and of course, using icon-based programming languages to write programs.

So, with that being said, I have gathered a lot of great materials and hands-on tools over the last few years, such as Lego WeDo kits, Ozobots and creative instruction with the icon-based language, Scratch. But, I have had times when I’ve needed activities that didn’t require a computer. I needed to teach computer science without computers. Sometimes these activities were used to fill a break in my coding or Robotics camps. Sometimes, I was asked to teach where there were few resources and only a couple of computers. We needed a way to rotate computer use, but still be working with programming concepts.

Computer Science Without Computers

This need led me to the DK Workbook, Computer Coding. This looks to be a companion to DK’s book, Help Your Child with Computer Programming, except that this slim workbook starts out by introducing the Python programming language, which I do not teach. Although I will be teaching a kids’ web design class this summer, most of my classes do not use text-based programming languages.

I know, we could have a whole other debate about how HTML isn’t a true programming language…but let’s hold off for now, shall we?

DK's book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

DK’s book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

If you skip ahead in the Coding workbook, there are some really cool exercises on “thinking like a robot” and writing out simple commands, such as ‘forward(50).’ I drew out some of these on the board and had us work together to complete them. Honestly, it wasn’t as much fun for the 9th graders who were my captive audience. They had a hard time making the connection to why this type of learning was important – and they weren’t intrinsically interested in coding. In that case, I really could have used some computers to set them free with Scratch. Usually, the free expression in Scratch can hook any reluctant teen programmer.

But alas, that wasn’t an option for a cash-strapped camp who wanted to offer some computer science programs. I did find a curriculum that looked interesting, but didn’t come across it until after my “no-computer” camp experience. This free “Computer Science-in-a-Box” curriculum is from the National Center for Women  & Information Technology. Although this curriculum is geared toward ages 9 – 14, I haven’t used it in my camps. It does seem a bit like “school” work and my campers are not so willing to take up paper and pencil during the summer. But, like most curriculum, I’m sure there will be some great insights that I can find to use with my students.

A good resource from Code.org.

A good resource from Code.org.

I’ve also looked over the curriculum from Code.org – “Intro to the Art of Computer Science.”  Both of the above items are well-researched, but most of the activities are too tedious or abstract for my younger students to appreciate or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – I like the guides and learned a lot from them. I also think think they offer a lot of valuable information, but not for my age group (or for uninterested kids). They seem to be written for the computer scientist in mind – those kids who know they want to work with computers, have played with Scratch and maybe Python, and want to know everything about how binary works and how a computer thinks.

Many of the kids I encounter are unsure that they can even tell a computer what to do, so we have to find a way to break down the abstract concepts into something much more concrete. It’s why I love Scratch so much. Regardless, I do recommend the guides – if only as a way to gain more background knowledge and vocabulary for the teacher.

I would also recommend reading more about Seymour Papert and his thoughts on computers in schools and how children use them (or should use them). Palpert was at MIT, helped to develop the Lego Mindstorms concept and has left his lasting influence on the openness of creative learning, which is something that the creators of Scratch have carried forth into their teacher’s guide. I also think their article on computational thinking is well worth reading.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

Since we are talking about abstract concepts – I am a huge fan of logic problems and really like the ones put out by the Critical Thinking Co.  Last summer, I made some copies for a few kids in my camps because I knew that they would finish up faster than the other kids and might like a good challenge. Some of my other students found these too difficult and had a bit of a fixed mindset about discovering the solutions. Either way, having them look at information in a new way (which is what logic problems do) is a great skill for any kid (or adult) to try.

Lauren Ipsum

Finally, this book has been sitting on my shelves for many months now…just waiting for the right opportunity to read it aloud to my six and ten-year-old sons. Of course, we had to get through The Magician’s Nephew, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now, we need to finish The Odyssey (abridged), but we’ll get to it because I’m really looking forward to reading a fantastical story that has computer science elements.

All told, there are a number of resources to impart logic and computer science concepts – without a computer. As noted above, you can check out my previous posts on Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, Be the Robot and Making a Paper Laptop.

Unfortunately for those schools (or camps) that do not have the resources for a computer lab, these non-computer activities will only take you so far with computer programming. As far as other materials that teach “programming,” I am a huge fan of the 1.0 Ozobots since they have their own “color” language and students can use regular markers and a large sheet of paper to write some programs. They don’t require as much space as laptops or desktops, and students could work together as a group, so it would cost less money. To see how I’ve used Ozobots in my camps, check out “Using Ozobots in a Classroom” and “Making Maps with Ozobots.”

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

Book Review :: Sylvia’s Super Awesome Project Book Vol. 2

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

Sylvia's Super Awesome Arduino book

Sylvia’s Super Awesome Arduino book

Be the Robot

This is the third post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the first post about the game, Robot Turtles and extensions for Robot Turtles.
A made-up game that acts kids to be both programmers and robots.

A made-up game that allows kids to be both programmers and robots.

As I prepared for my camps this past summer, I knew I wanted to have some other activities that could teach computer science concepts – without a computer.


This past summer, my camps ran from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and although we had some outside time, it wasn’t as much as I would have liked. Last June, the afternoon temperature here was 100 degrees. But, I didn’t want them sitting in front of a computer for more than a couple of hours at a time. it’s not good for kids (or adults), even if it is a camp for computer programming. There is a lot of value in having other activities which make you think.

So, inspired by this post from Dr. Techniko, I came up with my own game, Be the Robot.

The initial commands. (As they get more advanced and stay interested, I introduce repeat loops.

The initial commands. As they get more advanced and stay interested, I introduce repeat loops.

To demonstrate how to play, I would ask one of the older students to “be the robot.” I was the programmer and gave them a few commands from the handout.  After we worked out how to “read” the commands, I would pair the kids off and they would take turns writing a program for their robot. Each student had a chance to be the programmer and the robot.

The entire time they were working, I volunteered to “be the robot” and run their code. I would execute it based on their written down code and they were often surprised when I didn’t pick up the pencil or go around an obstacle. You could see their brains making the connections of specific instructions.

I first tested the game with my younger campers (ages 7 – 10) and found that my directions were not specific enough. I had also tried to introduce it to them before playing Robot Turtles and it was harder for them to understand. Thereafter, I made sure that each group of younger students (under age 9) had played Robot Turtles before attempting this lesson.

For the older students (5th-9th grade), I ended up giving them a “challenge” for their robot.  Rather than just play around with the commands,  they seemed to need more of a purpose. I asked them to write a program for their robot where the robot would start on one side of the room, pick up a pencil, return to the other side of the room and place it on the floor. Honestly, I can’t say the group of 9th graders loved this aspect of the game, but they did understand the concept afterward.

I think this game still needs a bit more tweaking – maybe a bit more demonstration in the beginning? Perhaps it should be preceded by a coding treasure hunt, as mentioned by Dr. Jackie Gerstein?

Regardless, it’s one more tool to place in your programming toolbox. You can download my hand-drawn sheets here  (PDF File of Be the Robot).  Obviously, please use these with your summer camp or classroom – mass-produced commercial use is prohibited. Hopefully, you and your students will find it useful. And, if you get a chance, post a comment so we can all learn from each other and craft a better lesson.

Example of how commands would be written for the game, Be the Robot.

Example of how commands would be written for the game, Be the Robot.




Hour of Code

Monday, I volunteered at our local library to help students work their way through an hour of code. Hour of Code is a worldwide movement to introduce coding to students. The organization also hopes to get computer programming into every school curriculum.

Trying out the hour of code. A is testing our new student computer for Artisan.

Trying out the hour of code. A is testing our new student computer for Artisan.

I love the logical thinking that comes with programming. I love the idea that we can create something out of “nothing.” And, I like the idea that students will learn to create rather than consume – if they know code.

But…rather than piling one more thing onto our already stressed out kids, I’d like to see it incorporated into the entire curriculum. Personally, I think it could be a great way to showcase self-directed projects, but since project-based learning isn’t ubiquitous, what about replacing part of the math curriculum with a computer science curriculum? Do kids really need to know mean, median and mode in 3rd grade? What if we spent four weeks teaching them how to use Scratch?

For example, when my oldest son was eight, he began working with the programming language, Scratch. He was introduced to the xy-grid. We had to talk about angles and degrees when recreating the game Pong. He has never been formally taught about coordinate planes, but he understands them because he’s written programs using coordinates.

Many of the upper-level programming languages require complex math equations. What a fabulous way to include real-world applications for math. In fact, this man thinks math could be taught through computer programming.

Of course, once kids know Scratch, they could then use it to replace some of their written work – book reports could be written in code. What about projects in geography class? Why have everyone stand up in front of the class with PowerPoint when they could make an interactive game or map that tells about their country?

Think of the possibilities! What a fabulous chance to help our students become creators, not just consumers.



Review :: The Game of Robot Turtles

This is the first in a series of activities that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts – without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices.

Robot_Turtle_GameSince I am a trained Montessori teacher, I try to incorporate a Montessori approach for all of my lessons. The Montessori Method focuses on hands-on learning – starting with concrete concepts and then moving on to more abstract concepts. Each child has a chance to work with the materials individually to gain mastery. Repetition is a desired goal. Group work is encouraged, but only with certain materials and only once the key concept is gained. Watching another child do the work is considered learning and is often encouraged.

Educational organizations do not always have the resources to provide hands-on materials for each child.  So, how do I apply this way of learning – concrete to the abstract – without expensive tools and materials? How have I taught computer programming without a computer on which to program?

Thankfully, there are a lot of inventive people out there working on this problem.  The game of Robot Turtles is one of the solutions.

Round one of Robot Turtles - everyone starts at this very easy level - even if you are 9-years-old!

Round one of Robot Turtles – everyone starts at this very easy level – even if you are 9-years-old!

A few years ago, I was introduced to Robot Turtles and my first impression was not that great.
I felt like it left out a lot of information and didn’t make the transition to the type of programming I was teaching. But, then again, I probably should have actually played the game instead of just glancing over while my kids played it. At that time, I was only using WeDo Robotics and the programming language, Scratch. I thought it was too simple for my students.

Then, I realized that some of my WeDo campers weren’t always able to transfer some of that learning to the Scratch programming environment. So, I began to wonder if Robot Turtles might address that problem. I was also looking for something that would allow my campers to work individually with the WeDo software, but still allow the other campers to learn about programming. Buying more Lego® sets and adding more computers wasn’t really an option. Also, I taught a few classes for a non-profit summer camp and we only had two computers to use for an entire class of 15 kids. I needed something else to teach these core concepts.

Last summer, I had a group of four students (ages 7 – 10) play the game and I acted as the robot computer. I read the rules out loud and they all laughed because it required the “computer” to make computer noises. They snickered as I tried to make goofy sounds. I loved reading the rules out loud because it diffuses the tension with the kids.  Immediately, they realize they aren’t going to move their own turtles – at least not in the beginning. And since the rules said it, there’s less chance of a power struggle.

There are multiple levels to the game and even my older students have to start at the beginning. They will often grasp the concepts quicker than the younger ones, but it puts them all on a level playing field.

Since I work with older students, I introduce the ice towers and the laser cards at the same time.

Since I work with older students, I introduce the ice towers and the laser cards at the same time.

The first three rounds typically take 20-30 minutes and the more comfortable they get with the game and the concepts, the more I let them take the lead. After running through the board with ice blocks, lasers and solid walls, I ask them to set up the board however they like and then “write” their own program to retrieve their jewel. I act as the computer and use their turtle to “run” the program – with the students calling out the commands. I was surprised at how many made an error or two in this stage, but it’s quickly remedied by slapping the “bug” card and fixing their program.

Set up your own path and "write" your own program.

Set up your own path and “write” your own program.

At this point, the game loses the interest of most of the kids, though, you still have a few who want to try different set-ups. All told, they’ve understood some basic concepts and it’s easy to bring it back again to reinforce the concept that a computer doesn’t know what you are thinking – you have to be specific when you tell it what to do. A programmer also needs to be aware of limitations (rocks, ice walls) and be aware of bugs in their programming.

This is a fun game that works really well for ages 6 – 11. It’s actually designed for 4-year-olds, but since I don’t have any of them in my camp, I’ve never tried it with kids that young. With my students, they don’t always go back to it, but they’ve gained a new way of internalizing programming concepts.

To find out new ways of using Robot Turtles– using pencil, paper, markers and colored pencils – check out my post on Extensions for Robot Turtles.

Robot Turtles - command cards.

Robot Turtles – command cards.