Edgerton Elementary gets kids coding at Spy School

Programming a Bee-Bot is easy, said 7-year-old Chanel, a second-grader who attended Edgerton Elementary School’s Spy School April 11, which was all about coding. She entered commands into the floor robot, which then moved from one place on the grid to another designated place. (Mike Munzenrider/Review)

Annah, an 11-year-old sixth-grade coding whiz, said the skill is common knowledge at Edgerton Elementary School. “Everybody knows how to code.”

The Makey-Makey Music activity included strange computer setups that taught programming and circuitry skills.

Their mission, which they chose to accept, was heading back to school after-hours April 11 to learn about spying, through programming.

Edgerton Elementary School held a family engagement night dubbed Spy School to highlight its efforts to get kids excited about computer science and coding.

Children and their parents flocked to the school that Monday night to program robots, create electronic music and compete in computer challenges, and in the process had a great time.

Edgerton’s efforts to get kids interested in computer programming were bolstered two years ago when the school received a $10,000 grant from Code.org, according to second-year Edgerton Principal Melissa Sonnek.

Code.org is a non-profit established in 2013 that seeks to expand access to computer science, as well as getting more girls and students of color interested in the field.

Sonnek said students at her kindergarten through sixth-grade school all have eight to 10 encounters with coding each school year with their homeroom teacher and other experiences with the school’s media specialist — a former programmer herself.

There are more computer science jobs than people with degrees to fill them, and that gap will only widen as time goes on, Sonnek said. 

For instance, there are currently just more than 550,000 open computing jobs in the U.S., according to Code.org, though the country produced fewer than 43,000 computer science graduates in 2015.

“We are really trying to give kids a foundation,” Sonnek said, noting that even beyond job prospects, coding is a valuable exercise for the mind. 

“It teaches you how to think,” Sonnek said, attributing the quote to the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs.


Moving Bee-Bots

Spy School included nine locations for nine activities. 

Karen Thompson, a reading recovery and intervention teacher, who Sonnek credited with coming up with the evening’s plan, said four or five of the stations directly related to coding or computer science, while others involved reading or physical activity.

Coding for a kindergartner is different than it is for a sixth-grader. Sonnek said her youngest students use a device called a Bee-Bot to learn coding at its most basic, which she said is “teaching a computer what to do.”

In room 128, where the Bee-Bot Buddy Challenge was being held, 7-year-old Chanel, a second-grader, explained how Bee-Bots work, as her father looked on approvingly.

Students enter commands into the Bee-Bot to make it fulfill a task — on Spy Night, the task was making the floor robot go across a grid from one square to another, Chanel said.

She entered a sequence of moves into the Bee-Bot using arrow keys on its back, and on her second try the bot successfully navigated the grid — Chanel was only one move off on her first try.

“It’s easy to program,” Chanel said affirmatively, when asked if the Bee-Bot is fun.

Kindergarten teacher Erica Anderson said the bots are “very intuitive” for her students, summing up her introduction process for kids as “Here’s how it works — play!”

Anderson said she uses the same principles taught by the Bee-Bots for an “unplugged” activity called Move the Teacher. She said students move her around the classroom towards a goal, using slips of papers with directional commands written on them.

“Forward, forward, forward,” Anderson said, demonstrating commands.

Sonnek underscored the importance of getting families involved on nights such as Spy School. While students readily pick up coding concepts, she said, “It’s new for the parents.”


Coding at the Capitol

Media specialist Laura Mittelbrun, the former programmer who has worked in the Roseville Area Schools district as a librarian for five years, was in charge of room 125, which housed an activity called Makey-Makey Music.

Various items not typically associated with computers — spoons, bananas, tin-foil pads — were connected to laptops with brightly colored wires. 

Using programming and circuitry skills, kids could tap the items to play piano notes on the laptops, but they had to configure the setup first — one proud mother remarked her daughter played a song from her piano lessons on cucumbers.

“We’re getting kids really excited to possibly do this as a career,” Mittelbrun said, pointing out that coding is a language. “Once you learn a language, it’s easy to pick up another.”

Mittelbrun said students who are learning English can benefit from coding lessons — in many lessons there are no words and the activity is entirely visual.

“In their head they get the logic [of coding],” Mittelbrun said, “and that’s really exciting.”

Sixth-grader Annah, 11, sat in the computer lab with her father participating in the Code Out — a competition to see which grade level could complete the most coding challenges on Code.org.

Recently, Annah visited the Capitol to meet with state Sen. Chuck Wiger, who represents Maplewood.

“We talked about coding, and I taught him how to code,” Annah said, explaining that she was chosen to go because she thinks coding is interesting and because she’s good at teaching other students how to do it.

As she continued to move text around a window on her computer screen, creating lines of code, Annah said she likes the problem-solving challenges associated with coding and how the activities get more difficult as they go along.  

When asked, she said she’d be open to becoming a programmer when she grows up.

“Well sure,” Annah said as her father, who works with computers, nodded in support, “it would be fun to do that.”


Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.


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