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Students of all ages engage in coding lessons

The school library at Dirksen Elementary School was abuzz with excitement as groups of second-grade students worked together to get a small wheeled robot named Dash to accomplish that week’s coding challenge: moving in a figure-eight pattern around two wooden blocks.

Three boys coding a robot“OK, he needs to turn. Then after he does that, he needs to go forward,” Recep told his teammate Moksh, who was adding a sequence of command blocks to their coding workspace in the iPad app Blockly. 

“Now you need to turn him left again. Yes, that’s it! That’s the correct way!” Recep exclaimed as Dash followed the first part of the path. 

“What? He’s supposed to turn right now,” Moksh said, leaning in to investigate as Dash zipped off in a direction his programmers hadn’t intended. “Let’s try again – we can do this!”

Kindergarten through sixth grade students at all District 54 elementary schools are engaging in coding activities this year as the district focuses on teaching students collaboration, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The lessons at all grade levels are tied to computer science principles. 

“I love that every week builds on a different skill, and they can apply what they learned the previous week,” Enders-Salk Learning Resource Teacher Katie Montalbano said. “The lessons take them step by step – this is how you code, this is the language you need – then every week it builds on itself.”

Students work on codingAs kindergarten through second grade students code robots to engage in progressively more difficult challenges, third through sixth grade students are creating interactive digital stories using a block-based visual programming language called Scratch. They began by creating characters and have progressed through choosing backgrounds, crafting dialogue and action sequences, and adding other elements, such as interactive choices.  

“Sometimes it’s really hard, but you can figure out how to do it,” said Chloe, a fifth-grade student at Enders-Salk. 

“They really have to do some critical thinking about where they want to go with their story,” Montalbano said. “Do they want to add motion? Dialogue?” 

Recently at Enders-Salk, one fifth-grade student worked on a story involving a happy dinosaur who dances and breathes fire, then gets hungry and goes to 7-Eleven, while another added to his story about a baseball game. That morning the class had learned how to add interactive choice elements – if/then coding – in which a character asks the audience a question and the audience’s answer determines what happens next.  

“If you want the audience to decide whether your character walks through a door or not, you have to pick two backgrounds and determine what happens for each choice,” Montalbano said. “If I walk through the door, where am I going? If I say no, where am I going?”

“It took a while, especially for the younger grades, to get comfortable, but now week in and week out students are willing to try new things,” Dirksen Learning Resource Teacher Benjamin Johnson said. “They can see that once they are willing to take those risks, they are able to be successful in anything they try.”

Students are also learning from each other by watching videos of work done by other students or groups, making observations and asking questions of other students to improve their own thinking and products. The skills students are learning from the coding activities – such as working together, finding and fixing problems and persevering through challenges – apply across all subject areas, Johnson said.

Students coding a robot“Instead of raising their hand for help when something goes wrong, they are more often willing to persevere through it, and we are seeing that carried throughout their entire day,” Johnson said. “By allowing students to experiment, try new things and fail – to work through that and solve problems on their own – we are providing them an opportunity to grow.”

“I like using Dot and Dash because we get to do new things and learn new things,” said Emi, an Enders-Salk second grade student as her group programmed Dash to scoop small balls into a bulldozer attachment.

“We’re doing it slowly so the balls don’t fall out,” noted Emi’s classmate Balian. “You have to use patience.” 

“They’re realizing they need to communicate and talk with their group,” Montalbano said. “I’ve done Hour of Code with students, and they understand sequencing and trial and error. If they don’t get it the first time, they have to talk about what they can do differently.” 

Three students work on codingTwo Dirksen second-grade students summed it up well as they worked together to program Dash.

“We’re playing!” Hadeel said.

“We’re not playing, we’re experimenting,” her teammate Siya said. 

“We’re experimenting – it’s a fun one,” Hadeel agreed.