Western Pennsylvania Students Thrive in Computer Programming and Robotics

New Brighton is the only school district in the state’s western region that teaches coding at the elementary school level.

by Jared Stonesifer, Beaver County Times / December 4, 2018
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(TNS) — If kids really are the future, then the New Brighton Area School District is doing everything it can to prepare them to thrive in the ever-changing world of science and technology.

The school district is the only one in western Pennsylvania to teach elementary school children how to write computer code and how to execute that code to manipulate a robot.

The new program, available to about 330 pupils in grades 3 to 5, is a partnership between New Brighton and Carnegie Mellon University. The Montour School District in Allegheny County also participates in the program with middle school pupils.

The program is simple: Pupils spent a 30-minute class period learning how to code using a software program called Calypso. The next day, student spend another 30-minute class applying that code to a robot named Cozmo.

Kate Na-Shatal, a teacher at New Brighton Elementary School, trained last summer to be able to teach the pupils how to use Calypso and Cozmo.

She described the robot as not unlike Disney's Wall-E: about three inches high and four inches long, with treads on the bottom that give Cozmo the ability to move around. The robot also has arms that enable it to pick up different materials, eyeballs that allow it to see, and a program that allows it to talk.

Once programmed with code created by the pupils, Cozmo can perform an assortment of tasks. According to Na-Shatal, the Trobot can talk and play games with the children and can also respond to various commands.

"The possibilities are amazing of what this program can do and how the kids can code it," she said.

For Na-Shatal, the benefits of teaching coding and robotics is obvious. The world in which young people live is changing and expanding rapidly, especially within science and technology. If you're not teaching kids early, then they may already be behind.

"It opens them up to new technologies and gives them a chance to create something on a computer, but then to see it come to life," she said. "Doing it at such a young age empowers them. Coding can be overwhelming, but once we break it down, they realize it's absolutely something they can do."

Not only can they do it, Na-Shatal said, but they thrive at it.

"It feels like a game to them, but it still involves a lot of problem solving and rational thinking, which makes it a great tool for education," she said.

Elementary school Principal Jason Hall said it was a no-brain decision to partner with Carnegie Mellon. He said the university offered Cozmo, the programming software and even new laptops to help facilitate the program.

"It's an honor for us," he said. "We always try to go above and beyond for our students, and this opportunity fell in our lap and we're taking advantage of it. We get to spread the knowledge of coding, and we get to partner with CMU, which is good company to keep."

Hall said it's necessary to prepare pupils for a world that is increasingly dependent on computers and software. But besides that, Calypso and Cozmo are teaching much more than technology.

"Their engagement and interactions with each other are amazing," he said. "They get so excited and see it as playing, but it's also learning. It's really a win-win for us."

Na-Shatal said the new program fosters an atmosphere of teamwork and togetherness not normally seen in a traditional classroom.

"The kids love helping each other," she said. "If they're coding and not sure about something, I rarely have to go over to help them because they help each other. They take a lot of pride in being able to navigate the programs and use the code. Their ownership of the program is phenomenal."

The program doesn't have a set expiration date, and Hall said he will work with CMU for as long as the university permits. After all, there is no chance that pupils will learn everything they can about the software and robots.

"The technology is always changing and updating. There are endless possibilities with robots and programming," he said. "The more complicated it gets, the more students have to learn."

©2018 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.