East Noble shows off its computer skills

Article by Steve Garbacz of KPC Media

Indiana superintendent of public instruction visits district to see program

KENDALLVILLE — After the robot ran through a small course laid out with masking tape on the floor, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick wanted to know if the fourth-grader could reverse the robot’s course and send it back through the U-shaped route.

Lincoln Valenti, who already was a little nervous in the spotlight, said he’d have to recode his Sphero robot. He tapped his iPad a couple times, and the robot began rolling, made a right turn and went out of the course. He scooped it off the floor, put it back at the starting line and tapped the iPad screen a couple more times.

The robot rolled forward, making a left this time, then another, and ended up at the other side of the course.

Valenti got a round of applause from the teachers and staff — and especially from McCormick, who was impressed to see a youngster capable of adapting on the fly.

McCormick, a Republican who is wrapping up her first year in office after being elected in 2016, visted Wayne Center Elementary School in Kendallville Monday morning to learn more about East Noble School Corp.’s computer science programs and get a glimpse of the different tech projects students from kindergarten through their senior year are working on.

“It’s so impressive, and it shows a commitment from the district and from the teachers, but also from the students. Any time you can have systemic change like that, that really does run the gamut of kindergarten through high school, it makes a really powerful impact,” McCormick said.

East Noble showed off three separate groups of students and how computer science is woven into the curriculum for those students.

It starts at the kindergarten level, where kids are introduced to hands-on projects in school maker spaces. On Monday, five Wayne Center students showed McCormick how they use Ozobots, small rolling robots that can follow a track on paper and perform different actions based on what color it crosses on the page.

The students color small boxes with markers, with different colors corresponding to different actions, like stopping, spinning or moving fast, and then run the robot across it. The students learn how to link the different color-coded pieces together to get the robot to do what they want.

It’s basic, but it sets a foundation of how coding works by connecting different commands into one process.

Chelsea Thangvijit, the technology integration specialist for Wayne Center and North Side elementaries, said K-6 students have been working on building, coding and circuit projects in the maker space. The students enjoy the opportunity to work on the projects, she said.

“The kids, every time I see them in the hallway, they ask me, ‘Is it my tinker time today?’” she said.

Older elementary students work on slightly more complex coding. Valenti, a fourth-grader, set up simple programs to direct the Sphero rolling robot through a maze.

North Side Elementary sixth-graders Tylar Rittenberry and Dalton Rodgers showed off the different coding challenges they work on through the website code.org. Rittenberry has been learning about HTML — the code that powers websites — while Rodgers worked through a series of challenges using preset tags.

Rittenberry said he likes to work on the coding challenges “any time I can,” while Rodgers said he didn’t like coding until he practiced more and got the hang of it.

At the high school level, Cindy Joest is teaching three sections of 80 total students who signed up for the computer science courses. That’s a large contingent compared to other schools around the state, where maybe a dozen students sign up for those types of classes.

Computer science class requires students to think differently than they might in other classes. In math, for example, students start with a formula and work toward a solution, but in computer science, they’re given an end goal and asked to develop the path to get there.

“The focus is on finding a problem-solving process,” Joest said.

Students showed off projects they’ve worked on in the first part of the two-trimester course, including creating pixel art using binary and hexadecimal systems, coding functions to create images and creating more complex programs for the Sphero robots.

East Noble High School junior Zach Landez said he took computer science because he wants to pursue automotive engineering in the future. With electric vehicles on the rise, self-driving technology being developed and computerized controls, Landez thinks coding will be a must-have skill.

“Part of the engineering is going to be through coding,” he said. “You have computers controlling everything.”

McCormick said East Noble is a good example of the kind of program the state could encourage in other districts. That’s going to require money, materials and staff, and the Department of Education needs to find ways to provide those resources to districts.

“Indiana is doing a better job of trying to bring a focus to it to align those resources. We’re doing that from our office, the Department of Workforce Development is doing that as well and the governor has made a commitment to it. So you need all of those rowing in the same direction to make something happen,” she said.

McCormick said her goal is for the state to offer ideas and support, but to allow districts to adopt programs that will work for them. She doesn’t want the state to take a top-down approach, where it forms a program and then tries to implement it across all districts.

“Any time you can do something at the grassroots and let it feed its way up, it has much more success,” she said.