JACKSON – It was cold and dreary and early that morning. The hallways in Elms Elementary School were empty, with some staff already in the building, preparing for the students’ arrival in less than an hour.
In the upstairs hallway, though, was the bustling excitement of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. They made their way into a classroom and took seats, eagerly awaiting their challenges for the morning. It’s the Robotics Club.
Teacher Danielle Parella stood at a smart board with the challenges spelled out for the children. Using code, they had to make their robot, Dash, perform different tasks: successfully enter a student-made wood-block “garage,” or navigate a maze, or plow into a tower of block. Or, the students could create their own challenges.
The room erupted into chatter and collaboration, the students being separated into six work groups. They entered their coded commands into tablets that fed directions to Dash, a blue cyclops sphere who navigates with three wheels.
The students spent the next 45-or-so minutes writing code to see what they could make Dash perform. Once a group thought they perfected their task, they would call out to Parella or find her to show off their accomplishments. The tasks weren’t always pulled off smoothly, but Parella kept encouraging them to try, try again.
“For example, last week two students created a ramp, so they were able to start Dash at a different point of the room, and they had him go to the ramp and go up the ramp and come down the ramp. They did all of that using the algorithms they use for code, the same code as any found at Code.org that computer programmers are using,” Parella said.
So students are learning computer science and, to them, it’s all play.
“We are looking to expand the club with experiences throughout the school day,” principal Michael Burgos said. “From a district level, it’s definitely functioning as a pilot to changes that we want to make within our technology curriculum.”
Assistant principal Dr. Lisa Lane spoke more about that during the Thursday morning club.
“This program is dynamic and innovative. It raises the Elms level of student engagement. We’re taking on the challenge of creating opportunities for students to engage in problem-based learning, which is very exciting,” Lane said. “What we’re hearing now, our students don’t want to go back to the old way of doing science instruction. They want to go to the STEM labs, project-based learning. This is what they want. They don’t want to go back to the textbook instruction. They want to be doing.”
She said the classroom the students were in was provided by the Ocean First Foundation, Toms River. The club was funded by a grant from Elms’ parent group.
“We have a very proactive Parent Teacher Network. They have been very active in the last couple of years in fundraising to benefit the school. One of the outcomes of that fundraising was a grant opportunity for our teachers. They offered different $400 grant opportunities for innovative ideas that our teachers might come up with,” Burgos said.
One of those ideas was the Robotics Club, the vision of Parella. The response was overwhelming; the school sponsored two clubs.
“For the students, it’s an introduction to computer science and getting them to think about what a robot is and think about what it does and take it and make it even better. So, although we are just hitting the surface of it right now, our goal is to take their opportunity and ask, ‘What can you do to make this better?’” Parella said.