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Alabama's Push for STEM Features Computer Science, Robotics

Given the state's digital literacy and computer science standards from 2018 and grant funding from Amazon, Decatur City Schools have been training teachers to incorporate robots, coding and other technology into lessons.

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(TNS) — First graders in Jessica Grantland's class at Eastwood Elementary are using robots that look like bumblebees to learn reading, math and basic computer coding skills as part of a program that earned Decatur's school system national attention.

"We use bee bots for reading and mathematics, especially with addition and subtraction," Grantland said. "They can program their bots to move forward to add or move backward to subtract."

The bots are small electric-powered machines that move along the floor according to how students program them.

"When the students are working with the bots, they are using a very basic form of coding," Grantland said. "The bots are placed on a grid of numbers and students are given an equation such as 2+5 and they will program the bots to move to the sum which is listed on the grid."

The bee bots are part of a program in which Decatur City Schools elementary students are learning computer science with coursework like basic software coding and robotics.

The school system's students were featured at the National Elementary Computer Science Summit this month where states met to discuss computer science studies in their schools.

"Someone from the state department reached out to me and said, 'Hey we would like to feature Decatur City at the summit and we're wanting to share all the computer science learning happening in your schools,'" said Faith Plunkett, elementary instructional technology coach at Decatur City Schools.

The Decatur school system received a grant from Amazon last year to be a part of its Future Engineer program, a $50 million investment that goes to improving STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and computer science courses in under-served communities.

In 2018, Gov. Kay Ivey approved the Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards, introducing computer science to school system curricula across Alabama. Starting in 2019, all school systems in the state were required to practice those standards.

Teachers at Eastwood Elementary, West Decatur Elementary, and Woodmeade Elementary started computer science training last year, and teachers at Julian Harris and Chestnut Grove elementary schools have started training this year, said Plunkett.

Eastwood Elementary's Grantland said her students have been very receptive to computer science training and have even assisted teachers at times with using the "bot" devices.

"It amazes me how quickly they've picked it up," Grantland said. "When we gave them these learning devices, they've taught not only me, but other teachers in our school things we didn't know they could do."

She believes that one of the main reasons her students have excelled at robotics is that it is fun to them, and because they are having so much fun they do not realize they are learning.

"It engages them more and makes learning more fun," Grantland said. "Even though it's hard for them, it gives them another incentive to continue to work at it." — West Decatur program

At West Decatur Elementary on Memorial Drive Southwest, Kristie Beamon is teaching students in the third through fifth grades coding Wednesday through Friday. Beamon is the librarian media specialist and is over the computer lab.

Plunkett said elementary students use Blockly software for coding and decryption.

"Blockly is basically a version of JavaScript designed for elementary students," Plunkett said.

In addition to Blockly, Beamon's students are also using and to complete their coding lessons.

"It teaches them design and is a real fun activity for them," Beamon said. "It teaches them computational thinking and problem solving skills as well as programming concepts for digital citizenship."

Beamon said her students have been so enthusiastic and passionate about learning computer science that there has been little to no challenge teaching them.

"I tell them all the time, 'You guys are learning and you don't even know that you are because you're having a good time with these lessons,'" Beamon said.

©2021 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.