Dancing with Robots

Students love the groundbreaking coding lessons that are a core part of the 1st grade math curriculum.

While the complex art of coding remains a mystery to many older generations, students as young as six are learning the basics thanks to Jenni Swanson Voorhees, director of Lower School academic technology, along with 1X teachers Eve Eaton and Amie Wallace.
When Eve decided to incorporate coding into her curriculum, the 1Z teachers, Liz Wilson and Clare Powers, asked if Jenni could help them do the same. Jenni, who has many years of coding experience, immediately agreed.
“Although a lot of programs allow you to see what coding is, students gain a great deal from formal teaching,” she says. “Before we had the iPads, everyone got coding lessons. Incorporating it into the math curriculum is a way of reinventing it.  The kid-appropriate materials have grown so much over the last few years, and there are many new options.”
First graders start off playing the “robot game,” which uses notecards to get them accustomed to the kinds of commands they will see when coding. Students split into pairs, with one student as the “robot” and the other as the coder. “You use the cards to show your partner where to go,” says Jenni. “We’ve also used the game to demonstrate to 1st graders what looping is. We planned a dance party, where they came up with three moves and then got to perform it by looping it.”
After that, students work on their iPads using a program called Scratch Jr. “Scratch was created on the shoulders of Logo, which I used to teach in my classroom,” Jenni adds. “An alum who contacted me in the last couple years told me, ‘I work in Silicon Valley now, and I always remember that you taught us Logo when I was in 3rd grade, on a Commodore 64.’ That’s influenced him his whole life.”
Alongside Scratch Jr, the work students do on another app, Lightbot, has so enthralled them that many students practice outside of school. “It’s a kind of puzzle—you move this little guy around, and there are places that it has to light up,” Jenni says. “There’s more than one way to solve the puzzle. It quickly moves from just being about predicting each step, to not giving you enough space for those steps and forcing you to create a procedure. So if the character is going to repeatedly walk three steps and light up, you have to create a procedure in your program. You’re forced to think about it in chunks, which is a really good experience.”
As a whole, Jenni says, the kids have taken to coding like fish to water. “They love it,” she explains. “When students who find coding a little confusing at first, but are encouraged to persevere, discover that they’ve actually succeeded in completing a challenge and it’s working, it really inspires them.” 

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