It was 1983, in the back corner of a science lab in Mynarski Park, Alberta where a solitary computer sat with a triangular turtle flashing in the middle of the monitor. My grade 7 teacher, Mr. Graves, had just tried to convince me that learning to type lines of a new language into this beige box would change the world.
My first experience with a computer was just a few years before in a room the size of a gymnasium. Huge metal machines lined up in rows and, in the middle of them, my ten year old self felt a sense of awe and wonder. That sense of wonder is what made me believe Mr. Graves and what kept me in at recess trying to figure out how to get a turtle to write my name across a screen.
That curiosity has stayed with me through many years in the education system, as a student and as a teacher. But it was only recently where I was given the gift of reuniting with this past computer programming experience. It came in the form of two young students immersed in a Genius Hour project. They wanted to create their own video game and their research led them to a program called Scratch. I knew I had work to do.
Over the next few nights, I investigated this block coding program, I attempted to make my “sprite” do what seemed like miraculous things, and I ordered books to help me help them. It was at this time that my world began to change.
St. Michael’s Catholic School is a rural K-8 school with a population of about 130 students. It is filled with passionate teachers and a principal who fuels that enthusiasm. So when the opportunity for a grant to create an innovative project became available, our principal quickly made a team and we started brainstorming.
Building on some past STEM initiatives in the school we decided that coding, as a vehicle for computational thinking, would be the focus of our proposal. We called our project: Creating a Culture of Coding, and it was given the green light to go ahead.
Our first year included meeting Lisa Anne Floyd from Fair Chance Learning, who focuses on spreading computational thinking to classrooms across the country. Lisa came to St. Michael’s and taught every teacher, as well as four students from each class, how to make music and how to count steps using a device called a micro:bit. The excitement was palpable.
In 2018, the innovation team wanted to keep the buzz so we decided that meeting once a month with an inspiring lesson for both teachers and students would be central to our new learning. We also would prepare an extension activity that could be done in the classroom in the time between meetings. All materials and plans would be provided for ease of use. The activities would be selected according to what we believed is a natural progression, a computational thinking/coding continuum. The following chart briefly outlines the proposed monthly challenges.
Unplugged Coding Activities
Introduction to Scratch Jr / Scratch
Hour of Code: tutorials in Scratch
No activity due to Christmas concert time commitment
In Scratch program, design game
Introduction to micro:bit
micro:bit Add Ons :
K8 Wars (micro:bit add on robot)
We determined that the diverse needs of the different classrooms must be considered. We paired a number of classes up, together in the gym, which allowed for the older students to help the younger students while providing the older students with a greater sense of purpose.
To date, we have hosted two Coding Days that have included activities involving tiled carpets, stuffed animals, and maps. We have danced to the cardinal directions and programmed code to be executed by our classmates. Some of our grade 4 and 5 students were introduced to data and binary coding through an activity that involved students being sent back to class with riddles represented in based on the binary system.
The Experiential Learning Coordinator and Technology Enabled Learning Teacher at Renfrew County Catholic District School Board (RCCDSB) have been integrating their portfolios and providing opportunities for teachers to come together and dig deeper with computational thinking. In early October, two teachers from our school joined with teachers from ten other schools and spent the day connecting micro:bits to the curriculum with sensors, speakers, and other tools adapted for use with these mini microcontrollers. Helping to organize this event was Tyson Holly, the Technology Enabled Learning Teacher, who was also scheduled to come to St. Michael’s for our October Coding Day later that month. We introduced the grade 3 and grade 7/8 classes to micro:bits and it was a huge hit. Students began with a simple code to make a beating heart, and then were very engaged with a rock, paper, scissor activity. When the younger students went back to class, the older students coded their micro:bits to use as a step counter and left the gymnasium running to see who could collect the most steps.
Other classes programmed Dash and Dot Robots to clean up garbage (pompoms) that had been left in a city (drawn on craft paper by the students). This lesson has led to an increased engagement with the coding of the robots. On a rainy day, two robots were seen moving through the hall during an indoor recess. A senior class asked to borrow Dash from the primary classrooms as their interest was sparked.
I suspect the innovation days will continue to evolve as the students’ interests and comfort level with coding changes. Recently the grade 7/8 class has begun integrating the micro:bits into their science lessons, the grade 3 class has moved from ScratchJr to Scratch Scratch, and the grade 1/2 class work with an unplugged coding station during their math block. Change is awakening the computational thinking, creativity, and problem-solving parts of many students’ brains at St. Michael’s School. A culture of coding is being created. And my world, in this wonderful community of Douglas, is changed as all students from grade 1 to 8 at St Michael’s School can write their name across a screen using a cat, a car, a robot or even a hand drawn turtle.
Catherine Searson is an RCCDSB educator with a passion for bringing STEM thinking and doing into her primary classroom. She has been blessed with supportive administrators who have helped bring her ideas to light. Catherine has been involved in two TLLP projects and is currently helping to navigate a new Innovative Learning project at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Douglas, Ontario. She and her husband are the proud parents of four amazing children.