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WATCH NOW: Students use coding to diagram water cycle, Legos to build catapults
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WATCH NOW: Students use coding to diagram water cycle, Legos to build catapults

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GREENSBORO — Diagramming the water cycle is a science-class classic. This year, some Guilford County Schools students will do the old assignment a new way, by coding the diagrams on their laptops and tablets.

Coding will be part of normal classes for students in grades K-8. And students in kindergarten through fourth grade will dabble in engineering as part of their regular classes too.

The idea is to expose students early, to interest them in those careers.

“It’s all just a part of the jobs of the future, and making sure we don’t wait until late high school or even after graduation to help students start to think about what they want to be and what skills they need,” said Whitney Oakley, the district’s chief academic officer.

They want to involve all students, not just those who sign up for special schools or opportunities. Their strategy is to have teachers use coding and engineering activities to teach already required topics, like the water cycle.

“The biggest thing is that I want it to be something that is seamless and that it is not something that’s on top of, or extra,” said Faith Freeman, the district’s director of science, technology, engineering and math. “Both of the companies that we work with have really ensured that’s the case.”

Seamless or not, these are new initiatives, years in the making. And they are rolling out while teachers and students readjust to in-person learning amid the ongoing pandemic.

“My advice would be, for one, for teachers not to be afraid to fail, because it’s going to happen at the beginning,” Jackson Middle School Principal KaTrinka Brown said.

In coding, one tiny error can mean a whole program doesn’t work. But mistakes can be found and fixed.

Already some of the Jackson students who tried coding in science class this year have said they are interested in an elective the school offers.

“Be patient with them as they are learning the process,” Brown said, “because it’s going to take them to the next level.”

Coding and science

On a recent Thursday morning, Jackson Middle School seventh grader Mirco Kongolo peered at classmate Madam Williams’ laptop, then applauded silently.

Mirco said Madam “deserved a good clap” for “finding these codes” for the water-cycle coding activity.

Their teacher, Jessica Brown, received training on the new “STEMscopes Coding” initiative from the district in August, along with the rest of the district’s middle school science teachers and elementary classroom teachers.

STEMscopes Coding is an add-on to STEMscopes, the district’s normal online science text and resource. The district bought the coding feature for roughly $4 per student, using money from state textbook funds, Freeman said. She said in October that many schools had started using it, but she wasn’t sure if all schools had started yet.

Oakley said research suggests the earlier students are exposed the likelier they are to be engaged in a STEM career and follow that trajectory.

“The superintendent has been sharing research for a long time around the need to have coding in kindergarten,” Oakley said. “She’s been very clear that 5-year-olds can learn how to code, and we should make it a part of the fabric of an education.”

Freeman said the district chose STEMscopes Coding because it was easy for teachers to use, tied in with the curriculum, and didn’t require remembering new passwords or learning a completely new program. She had a school try it out a bit last year, she said, before taking it districtwide.

At Jackson, Principal KaTrinka Brown said her science teachers are required to use STEMscopes Coding in some way in each of the handful of units they teach for science over the course of the year.

Teacher Jessica Brown said for the first couple of units, she focused on weaving in coding concepts, and doing demonstrations of coding projects, to help get her students prepared.

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In early November, the class launched into a week of learning how to code and making the water cycle diagram.

Brown said it was probably the most engagement her students had shown this year.

“As you can see, all the students are doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is working on their water cycles and trying to understand ‘what’s going on with my code?’ that kind of thing, which is great,” Jessica Brown said.

On her laptop, Madam used the STEMscopes website to build her water cycle diagram. The STEMscopes coding program, which is JavaScript based, included a library of various graphics that students could select. So, for example, Madam put in a command to place an image of rain clouds onto her background, including coordinates for where the graphic should go. She then looked up the code for how to make her arrow graphic point the right way.

Madam said she had never coded before. She enjoyed doing something new and having to figure things out.

“I think it’s fun,” she said. “I would do it more often.”

Engineering and Legos

Later that day, at Morehead Elementary School, fourth graders walked into the media center to find Lego kits laid out across the tables. For language arts, the students had been reading about the Middle Ages, including siege warfare. Now, their challenge was to build and test tiny Lego catapults, while also making connections with what they had read and with fourth grade science standards about force and motion.

Like with coding, district leaders want to tie engineering into students’ regular curriculum and to help them start thinking about future careers.

In 2017, the district convened a task force that included local business and higher education leaders to advise the schools on how to align their career and technical education with existing and future workforce needs. Oakley said recommendations the task force shared in 2018 helped kick off discussions among district administrators.

“I think that’s when it started the narrative of how can we get more access to engineering earlier,” she said.

That early exposure, Oakley said, can also help lessen gender gaps in STEM fields, by helping girls see themselves as engineers at a young age.

Guilford County Schools bought the Lego kits, at a cost of about $23 per student, using federal COVID-19 pandemic recovery money. The kits, Freeman and Oakley said, tie in directly with North Carolina science standards.

At Morehead, media specialist Amanda Garner-Walker has been taking on one of the leading roles with the Lego engineering initiative. The tables in the media center worked better for the Lego kits than student desks in the classrooms, school leaders figured.

Garner-Walker explained to the fourth graders what they would be building: catapults that could launch tiny basketballs into tiny basketball hoops. Before they started working on the devices, she had the students practice taking turns with their partners to put some Lego pieces together.

In a brief interview later, she said she’s learned it’s wrong to assume that all students have played with Lego blocks before. She said it’s good to include a few minutes on practice with building, and how to work with a partner, before starting out.

To build the catapult and basketball goal, students followed picture instructions in a provided booklet and didn’t seem to have too much difficulty with it.

Once the devices were built, Garner-Walker had them conduct experiments, changing the height of their basketball goals and the distance between their goals and their catapults. For each trial, they were supposed to mark down on a grid whether it was a success or failure.

“Ready?” asked student Daniya Holding.

“OK!” said her partner, Blair Adamson.

The girls counted down together, with their fingers holding back the catapult, before launching the ball-on-a-string toward the goal.

“Dang it!” said Daniya when the ball missed its target.

They tried a few different combinations before breaking out into cheers when they found a sweet spot. Both were fans of the activity.

“I think it’s a great idea for kids to learn how to build,” Daniya said, “and use their minds, and do different things, and have fun with it.”

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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