Easthampton students learn to make robots dance

Easthampton teacher implements Exploring Computer Science curriculum

  • Grace Raucher, 15, center, works on programing a LEGO robot with her classmates Sophia DeBlase, 15, right, Emily Lussier, 17, and Samantha Sypek, 15, during the Information Technology class at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE

  • Students in the Information Technology class make robots using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 technology and software Wednesday at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Students in the Information Technology class make robots using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 technology and software. DAN LITTLE

  • Students in the Information Technology class make and program robots using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 technology and software at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE

  • Grace Raucher, 15, center, works on programing a LEGO robot with her classmates Sophia DeBlase, 15, Emily Lussier, 17, and Samantha Sypek, 15, Wednesday during the Information Technology class at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Students in the Information Technology class make robots using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 technology and software Wednesday at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE

  • Ronan Mottor, 15, works on a LEGO robot Wednesday during the Information Technology class at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE

  • Joe Harris, 14, works on a LEGO robot Wednesday during the Information Technology class. DAN LITTLE

  • Corey Rannileko, 14, center, works on programming a LEGO robot Wednesday with classmates Joe Harris, 14, right, and Godson Baptiste, 15, during the Information Technology class at Easthampton High School. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

@cmlindahl
Published: 4/20/2016 4:28:08 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Inside the Easthampton High School classroom of technology teacher Mary Rogers, 9th grader Ben Dameworth gets excited when he talks about what the future holds.

“Sometimes I get ideas – what if I can make a game?” said Dameworth, 15, of his understanding of computer programming. Though Dameworth says he has aspirations of one day becoming a software developer, Rogers says the problem-solving skills she’s teaching in her computer science course are meant to be applicable to many facets of daily life now and in the near future – including an activity on one February afternoon: Making robots dance.

“We’ll all be using robots in the future,” Rogers said. “It’s all about 21st century skills.”

Rogers is one of dozens of teachers in western and central Massachusetts who are teaching the Exploring Computer Science course this year. Billed as a new way of teaching technology classes, the course encourages hands-on learning and problem solving through journal writing, group brainstorming and the use of toys to illustrate concepts long before students even lay hands on a mouse.

Unlike classes that teach programs like Microsoft Word or programming languages, ECS was designed to foster a way of thinking that’s foreign to many high schoolers.

“They didn’t come to class knowing a computer language, they didn’t come to the class with a ton of computer skills,” Rogers said. Rather, the Easthampton students who took the class last semester and another group taking it currently need to be open to thinking in a logical, step-by-step way – the way computers, and in turn computer scientists, think. To that end, the course allows students to approach future computer-based problem solving with relative ease and comfort.

As music played throughout the classroom, the palm-sized robots lurched forward for a set number of wheel movements, pivoted, turned back and pivoted again, approximating what humans call dancing.

But unlike humans, the robots can’t listen to the rhythm and beat of a song and intuitively move. The LEGO EV3 robots relied on the students’ entries into a custom computer program: writing a command for each and every wheel turn forward.

The teachers armed their teaching toolkit at a weeklong workshop in Holyoke last summer as part of a statewide program organized by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Massachusetts Exploring Computer Science Partnership. It was funded by a $40,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Robots

Long before the students had the chance to make the robots dance, they had to piece them together using over 500 individual parts.

“That was a big challenge to them,” Rogers said. “Some of the students didn’t like to follow directions – they’d rather just put it together first.”

In order to ensure that the robots will move, its important to follow each individual step to ensure that the mechanical parts are correctly linked, Rogers said.

Once the robot was constructed and functional, Rogers assigned simple tasks, like instructing the robot to move forward a set number of wheel rotations.

In all of the ECS curriculum’s six units, the tasks build on one another in increasing complexity. The class starts with introductory units such as human-computer interaction and problem solving before moving on to applied coursework such as web design, programming and robotics.

In the case of the robot tasks, the students were able to see how specific programming directions must be in order to achieve the desired goal, Rogers said. 

The students were first introduced to the concept of robot instructions by completing an activity where one student acted as the robot and moved only in accordance to the specific instructions given to him or her by other group members.

Sometimes, the human didn’t act as expected. “The students had the same experience with the little EV 3 robots,” Rogers said.

Dance off

The winners of the dance contest were a group of four who said though they know their way around their iPhones, they had no experience with computer programming.

They programmed their robot to spin two times, move forward and then pivot back to repeat the sequence.

“It ended up working better than we thought,” said 9th grader Ronan Mottor, 15.

The group members agreed that the hands-on nature of the ECS class is much more engaging than other types of computer classes.

“It’s just something different than writing essays and taking notes in class,” said 10th grader Parker Derby, 17.

Downey took a Web design class in the past, which he said “wasn’t fun at all” due to the repetitive nature of writing HTML code.

And group member Edward Downey, 17, seemed to have an understanding of ECS’s takeaways even though the robot competition seemed like all fun and games. The 11th grader admitted that he still likes playing with LEGOs, and said he found the step-by-step programming required of robots to be strikingly similar to the physical brick-by-brick construction of a LEGO tower.

“Building it piece by piece,” he said. “You’re connecting everything together.”

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com




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