CAIRO — Students at Washington Middle School are learning computer coding skills by programming robots.

The students have been using iPads to program small spherical robots as part of a new computer coding curriculum that integrates interactive STEM-based learning activities.

“The possibilities are endless as to what they’ll be able to apply this to,” said Kim Harrell, middle school business and computer science instructor.

Using Sphero-brand robots, Harrell’s students wrote programs that created movements, lights, music and voices.

The activity is part of an overall push this year to begin exposing students to computer science at a younger age.

“We hope by having this at the middle school level it will help increase the enrollment through all the (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education) programs at the high school level for game design, webpage design, those types of programs,” Harrell said.

In the past, students were taught block coding skills at desktop computers. With the new robots, children are able to go outside the confines of their classrooms to see their lessons brought to life.

Harrell said not only are her students more engaged in the activities, she’s also seeing them apply problem-solving and critical thinking skills as they troubleshoot their programs.

“It’s great as a teacher because that’s your goal: to be able to see them make life applications,” she said.

Principal Michael Best said he loves to see students engaged in activities that interest them.

“The whole class is involved and they’re very excited about what they’re doing,” Best said. “They’ve come up to my office several times to show me the different things that they’ve learned to do with the Sphero robots.”

Funds for the robots came about as part of an initiative from the Georgia Department of Education to push computer science in rural and high-poverty school districts.

New middle school business and computer science standards in Georgia were adopted earlier this year. The standards include an expanded focus on information technology.

Harrell said she has tried to take a proactive approach in implementing the new computer science standards by securing grants for the purchase of new equipment, including the robots.

To help meet these standards, the Georgia Department of Education awarded $500,000 in grants to 20 middle schools in 19 school districts in rural, underserved or high-poverty areas. Washington Middle School received $25,000 of this money.

That funding made the purchase of the robots possible, Harrell said.

“We’re very fortunate to have someone like Ms. Harrell here at our school,” Best said. “She’s been a big part of our school for many years. Writing this grant and getting this program is just another great step forward for our school.”

Aside from the 30 iPads and Sphero robots, the school also purchased 15 LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robots, a drone and a Raspbery Pi computer. Harrell said the other equipment will be used throughout the school year for other coding activities.

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