Buzzing nearby, creatures built from lego blocks, cogs, and wheels spring to life, following the instructions supplied to them by code created by a Kindergartener.
Over the summer, The Rashi School was able to replace all four classroom sets of MacBook Airs which among many other applications, are regularly used to support Rashi’s coding curriculum.
The first language our students learn to code is a drag and drop language developed by Lego Engineering called WeDo. This language uses icons rather than coding words to create an intuitive programming environment and is used to control a motor which drives a Lego structure, designed by the child writing its code. By using a symbol-based drag and drop coding language, Rashi’s Kindergarteners learn to write and communicate ideas through code at the same time as they do through reading and writing in English. WeDo allows our students to focus on logic and problem solving; they’re asking questions like, ‘Can I make it speak? Should the robot go left and right? How far forward should it go before it turns around?’ and not ‘How do I do this?’
Rashi’s lower school, particularly in Grades K-3, uses WeDo to reinforce concepts learned in a unit in a kinesthetic way. For example, when our first graders learn about the process by which textiles are manufactured, they design and program the behaviors of an animal on a textile farm using WeDo and Lego Robotics.
As our students become more comfortable with basic computer functions as well as conceptualizing programming functionality, they switch over to a more sophisticated drag-and-drop engine: Scratch. This language, designed at MIT, is used to reinforce concepts at Rashi through virtual applications like animating videos. For example, students will animate a scene in their Hebrew class to tell a story relevant to vocabulary they are learning. Aside from animating the scene, their programs synchronize audio narration - the voice of the student - which provides practice writing and speaking in Hebrew and encourages fluency and comprehension.
Recently, Rashi's Middle Schoolers have been offered a third, even more sophisticated language, Snap!, as part of a coding elective. An extension of MIT Media Lab’s code, Scratch, this language is more robust and offers even deeper coding functionality. As part of this elective, students wrote iOS games, controlled robots by Bluetooth connection, wrote programs to automate gossip columns using list integrations, and even created artwork. Cindy Carter, a math teacher in Rashi’s middle school, ran the elective. “The experimentation and control that programming allows is a natural way to integrate mathematics, science, art, and language learning,” says Carter.
In all grades, Rashi’s robotics program uses a self-directed approach rather than a teacher-scaffolded one. Rather than serving as an instructor, teachers serve as a mediator - they ask open-ended questions to help students reach conclusions on their own: ‘This program doesn’t work yet. Where is the error? How can you make it work?’ This process encourages creative problem solving and resilience in students. “When a student writes a code that works, seeing it in action is so exciting and so motivating,” says Heidi Chapple, Head of the Lower School.
“Children learn best on their own when they set the goals and build on their own sense of understanding,” she explains. “Programming robots and writing code are deeply engaging processes and students learn intrinsically. They’re naturally motivated to better understand the process and to be successful.”