The mechanics of learning

Ninth-graders at Cedar Heights Elementary look like they’re playing. But their instructor, William Lewi, said they’re learning about programming.

The students gathered four one-armed robots on a table and began clapping their hands against the table top. The sound vibrations set the robots in motion. They scurried and crashed all over the table, chasing a bright red ball.

In between the melee of robots racing over the table top, the students picked up their robots, tweaked a hinge here, reattached a piece there, and then sent the robot back into the fray.

The students are using Lego-brand robot kits. The educational robots are pieced together and then programmed through a computer. Their haphazard shape is more about function than form — they have one light sensor and two audio sensors facing forward, and an arm on one side of the body.

In the next week, the students will learn how to program the robots to follow light and color and respond to audio signals.

After working through the basic instructions, the robots will chase after the red ball on command, creating a haphazard robotic polo game.

The overall activity may look like play, but Lewis is hoping to guide students towards learning. Lewis wants to infuse students with the idea that they can do computer programming.

Standing on the other side of the room from the students, Lewis watches them focused intently on the robots, trying different things to get different reactions. That’s just what Lewis is looking for — students so excited by a project they want to do the work.

Many students, he said, shy away from programming, assuming it’s too hard.

“This is just bridging that gap,” Lewis said. “It connects play with abstract concepts like programming.”

Lewis acquired four robotic kits produced by the Lego Co.. The kits come with typical Lego pieces and a computer core that takes input from audio and visual devices.

The programming is similar to any other computer code, but is organized with pre-set commands, allowing students to easily put together a set of instructions and learn how programming works.

The educational unit started this year, and Lewis hopes to expand it to other schools. He convinced the South Kitsap School District to purchase four of the $200 kits and supply an up-to-date computer for programming. In the coming years, Lewis wants to purchase more robots for other schools.

The robots fall in line with his overall teaching strategy bringing students to education through hands-on projects that feel more like play than work. This year students made derby cars powered by air cannisters, built working model rockets and constructed what will become a 15-foot replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The hands-on approach seems to be working. Unlike the stereotypical clock-watching student, Lewis had to be chased out of his class room to make it to their next period.

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