Willard Grade Center students watch as their robots roll across the floor on command during a robotics education project Tuesday, April 21, at East Central University. Purchase this image at theadanews.smugmug.com. (Photo by Richard R. Barron)

Richard R. Barron

Hope Nesdahl took a card and held it over the beak of a bird-shaped robot, making the beak switch colors from green to red.

Next to Nesdahl, Zavier Lewis held a card over her robot’s beak and watched the color change.

The two sixth-graders got their first taste of programming robots last week, thanks to a project involving East Central University and the fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Willard Grade Center.

ECU’s education department recently received 40 Finch robots from the Pittsburgh-based company BirdBrain Technologies, which runs a robot loan program for school districts. Birdbrain loans sets of robots, which are designed for computer science education, to schools so students can gain hands-on experience with coding and computational thinking skills.

School districts across the country applied for loans this year, but only 10 percent of the applicants were chosen to receive robots, said Dr. Mark Jones, assistant professor of education at ECU.

“They really liked the innovation of our project, where we’re working with pre-service teachers and then partnering them with several groups of students,” he said. “Usually, it’s just a single school site that will be awarded the loan.”

Jones said the project began with ECU education majors who are taking an education technology class. The students learned how the Finches work and how to use them to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

Once the students were familiar with the Finches, the education department started scheduling computer lab sessions with fifth- and sixth-graders at Willard Grade Center. The goal was to give college students experience in designing lessons for school-age children, using modern technology.

Jones said the project is rewarding for aspiring teachers and younger students alike.

“Really, what we’re hoping from this on our perspective is that the education students are seeing some of the STEM-type learning activities in practice,” he said. “But then we’re also hoping to benefit the school side that they can experience this as well and see the potential benefits of students being engaged with robotics and coding, and how that can really lead to connections to lots of other content areas.”

Jones said the department launched the project with Willard students but has reached out to other schools as well.

Finches at work

The students who entered the ECU computer lab last Thursday seated themselves at a bank of computers and listened as Jones told them how to get started with their robots. Following his instructions, the students  ran programs to make the Finches move or change the color of their beaks.

Before long, the students were setting their robots on the floor and making them scoot back and forth. A buzz of excited chatter filled the room as the students experimented with their robots or asked the ECU students in the lab for help.

Sixth-grader Zavier Lewis said she enjoyed the experience of controlling her robot and making it change colors.

“This is awesome,” she said.

Her classmate, Hope Nesdahl, said she thought the class would learn how to make their robots produce sounds but not much else. She said the project was better than she had expected, and she enjoyed programming the robots to perform other tasks.

“My favorite part is being able to control it (the robot), but I’m a bit of a control freak anyway,” she said.

Later in the session, the students programmed their robots to make sounds, read the temperature in the room or respond to obstacles.

Nancy Logan, who teaches sixth-grade science at Willard, said the students loved working with the robots.

“They’re gaining knowledge of programming robots to be independent,” she said. “They’re gaining coding skills, and they’re also gaining confidence in using a coding program. It holds their attention.”

Reach Eric Swanson at adanewsreporter@cableone.net.