Northampton students build computers in new digital literacy program

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  • Tthird-graders Samantha Pensivy and Sky Van Stee add a connection. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-graders Victoria Kulwich, left, and Janaiyah Alindato-Gonzalez play a game on the computer they built as part of the new technology education initiative. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Roxanne Mariani-Prall, a technology integration specialist for the Leeds and R.K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary Schools, helps Ryan Road third-graders Kayden Bain-Purdy and Isabelle Braidman work out a problem on their computer. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-grader Isabelle Braidman adds a connection Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, to a small computer she and a partner built themselves as part of a new technology education initiative in Northampton elementary schools. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nathan Bajaj and Simone Gorry play a game, on a computer they built. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-grader Isabelle Braidman adds a connection to a small computer she and a partner built themselves as part of a new technology education initiative in Northampton elementary schools. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-graders Clayton Cummings, left, Teagan Broussard and Brandon Culver play a game Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, on one of the small computers that students built themselves as part of a new technology education initiative in Northampton elementary schools. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Third-graders Clayton Cummings, left, Renezmai Wilkins, and Brandon Culver enjoy a game on one of the small computers that students built themselves. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • One of the “Piper” computers that R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-graders built. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Third-graders build small “Piper” computers in this photo submitted by R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal Sarah Madden. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Third-graders build small “Piper” computers in this photo submitted by R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal Sarah Madden. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Third-graders build small “Piper” computers in this photo submitted by R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal Sarah Madden. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Third-graders build small "Piper" computers in this photo submitted by R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal Sarah Madden. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Third-graders build small "Piper" computers in this photo submitted by R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal Sarah Madden. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2019 3:30:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On Friday morning, R.K. Finn Ryan Road School third-grade students were playing Minecraft on small computers. But they weren’t using an average laptop — they were computers the students had built themselves.

As part of a new technology education initiative in Northampton elementary schools, third-graders are building simple computers in small groups and then playing a game on them to better understand how they work.

Students used kits to create Piper computers, a small device meant to teach young people about electronics and engineering. The screen is slightly larger than an iPhone and it’s housed inside a wooden box with a chip connected to a small mouse, speakers and various buttons with colorful wires.

It took about five hours to build the computers, and students then spend time playing a version of Minecraft on the computers to understand buttons and circuits, said Roxanne Mariani-Prall, a technology integration specialist for R.K. Finn and Leeds Elementary School.

Building the computer was challenging at first, said student Belle Braidman. Then it clicked for her, “I remember the first time I got it and I got it lightning fast,” said Braidman as she navigated through the cartoon world using the mouse with her computer partner, Kayden Bain-Purdy.

Then the two students had to match a circuit of wires in front of them to one on the screen. Puzzles like these help them win the game, Baidman explained as she looked through a bag of extra parts, like lights and buttons, for the one she needed.

The goal of the game: “We’re trying to stop a cheese asteroid from hitting the earth,” Braidman explained. Do the puzzles, and you save the planet from doom.

The fun quest is there to engage them in some deeper learning, Mariani-Prall said.

“My goal as a teacher is not that they solve every single quest in front of them,” Mariani-Prall said. “It’s more what have we learned about building a computer, about input, output, switches and buttons? How does the current flow through the wires?”

Program to grow

The program started in Northampton elementary schools last fall. After building the computer in third grade, the plan is that the following year in fourth grade, students will learn to code on those computers, explained Mariani-Prall. Then in fifth grade, they will use it to create three-dimensional printing files. This academic year is the program’s first, and it’s only in the third grade so far, but Mariani-Prall is hoping to get more of the computer kits to expand the program up a grade.

The program is helping to address the state’s digital literacy and computer science standards. Adopted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2016, it lays out what students should know about computers and other digital tools. Standards for third- through fifth-graders, for example, include being able to write an algorithm, understand computers and their basic parts, and have some understanding of computer security.

Less than half — 43 percent — of eighth-grade students received proficient scores on a 2014 technology and engineering literacy assessment given to 21,500 eighth-grade students across the country and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Meaningful participation in modern society requires fluency in the uses of, impact of, and ability to manipulate technology for living, learning and working,” then-education commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote in the forward of the state digital literacy and computer science standards.

Putting the computer together is a challenge. “It’s not simple, like let’s hand out a worksheet,” Mariani-Prall said. “They’re faced with a lot of obstacles.”

That process can be frustrating for some students. “I see kids who struggle really hard,” Mariani-Prall said. “We don’t always have the answer ... Let’s figure it out.”

Sky Van Stee agreed that it was hard sometimes, and his computer building partner, student Samantha Pensivy, said the blueprint instructions helped. “I think we learned how to work with blueprints,” she said, pulling out the detailed plan for her computer.

“It was cool to make a computer and see how the wires work,” she added, as she navigated the cartoon world onscreen with a small mouse.

Pensivy and Van Stee then tried to mimic the wires and buttons on their own board to that on the screen in a puzzle — but it doesn’t work at first.

“Oh, I see what’s wrong!” Pensivy said as she shifted some wires around.

As the end of the class neared, Mariani-Prall announced a five-minute warning and the room let a disappointed, collective, “Aww.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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