Never too young to code, nor too old

Students in a Sheehy Elementary School robotics class help a Times reporter experience coding for the first time.
Kenneth Made, 11; Kayshaun Smith, 10; and Joshua Donaldson, 11, practice their coding skills in an after-school robotics class at Sheehy Elementary School on Feb. 20, 2019. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Kenneth Made, 11; Kayshaun Smith, 10; and Joshua Donaldson, 11, practice their coding skills in an after-school robotics class at Sheehy Elementary School on Feb. 20, 2019. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published March 8
Updated March 8

TAMPA - My robot is turning right instead of left. The icon I hit on the ThinkPad clearly points left. But the robot keeps turning right.

Did I program it to move too slowly? Does that even matter? I've never coded anything, and this is feeling like an epic fail.

Then Kenneth Made remembers that the robot has its motor facing the opposite direction from what was in the instruction guide.

Or, as he says, "you probably got tricked by the way we built it."

I'm working with Kenneth, Kayshaun Smith and Joshua Donaldson, all fifth graders, in a Sheehy Elementary classroom that, this being Hillsborough County, is steamy on a Wednesday afternoon.

But the kids don't notice the heat. They are fully invested in their work.

Six weeks ago, they won a gold medal in the robotic maze challenge at STEMPalooza, at the Glazer Children's Museum.

Using a drop-and-drag system from Lego Education, they wrote a sequence of commands that got the fist-sized robot through the twists and turns of a contest maze. They also made the robot do a happy dance, which they joined in, at the end of its journey.

Their teacher, Christine Danger, captured the whole thing on video. "There were a lot of teams that didn't make it through the maze," she gushed.

This is a transitional year for Sheehy, one of three Hillsborough schools that were ordered by the state to bring in an outside consultant after a string of low grades. Danger, a science resource teacher who used to teach robotics at nearby Robles Elementary was one of the upgrades. The equipment comes from grants Danger secured over the years.

Most of the students are brand-new to coding. Joshua is an exception; he stumbled on the activity about a year ago through Scratch, a children's product developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

"It said coding and games," he said. "I wanted to learn how to code." Already, he is considering a career in engineering. "I heard that engineers make a lot of money and I want to make a lot of money. So, yea."

My own daughter is a software engineer. But coding bypassed my generation, and I told Danger as much during an earlier visit to the school to report on the state intervention situation.

When she sent me an email with the subject line, "kids want to teach you to code," I was intrigued - and intimidated.

Here's what everyone else on the planet knows by now: Children cut their coding teeth through products that make it deceptively simple. Botley, for kindergarten age, let's you "code" by punching in a button to move the robot forward, then hitting the "play" button, then progressing to multiple moves.

From there, you graduate to the laptop products with their code blocks - Python, in the case of the Lego EV3 that, I realized after I had literally driven away, I had "coded" successfully. The blocks look like puzzle pieces that you can stack neatly to direct what the robot will do. About the hardest part is not sitting on the big box of Legos and scattering them all over the floor.

As they continue on to middle school, high school and beyond, the students will construct sequences that are more complex. They will build bigger robots with more motors. They will open the code blocks. They will learn coding languages.

But what happens at Sheehy is a lot more than child's play.

"They have to understand fractions and decimals and degrees of angle in order to program a robot to go where they want it to go," Danger said.

They to work collaboratively. They follow detailed directions, to build the apparatus. Sometimes they improvise. They added a platform to the contest robot's arm so it could lift objects, and not just push them.

Frustration sets in when things don't work - like the voice activated function on the Lego device.

And kids can get stuck during the building process. That's when Danger has to put on her teacher hat, telling them to re-read the instructions. "Sometimes the hardest part is not helping them," she said.

State lawmakers have debated since 2014 whether coding should be allowed to satisfy the foreign language requirement towards graduation. Supporters say it prepares students for work in the local economy. Detractors, often from bilingual South Florida, say coding does not give a student the world view of mastering Spanish or French.

But the stakes are different at schools that are trying to shore up students' academic skills and confidence.

"To see them be excited, and for them to go and compete, it kind of puts us on a different platform," assistant principal Ginette Hoze said. "It's wonderful that all their hard work is paying off, especially in the short time that they've been able to accomplish it."

Their students' next competition is a district one on March 27 and 28.

Looking ahead to middle school, they talk of attending magnet schools such as Young, which is strong in the sciences; or Williams, the international baccalaureate school, to position them for careers in technology.

Although, like all other children, Kenneth really wants to be a professional baseball player and Joshua wants to play soccer.

"If I retire from soccer," Joshua said, "I will do engineering."

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.

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