Second Graders at St. Mary Immaculate Parish School in Plainfield learned computer programming, urban planning, mapping, and story telling through an interdisciplinary group project in which they worked together to envision, draw, and describe their perfect urban environment.
The students designed cities, complete with landmarks such as schools, restaurants, parks, and libraries. They then used black markers to draw streets to connect it all. To travel the streets, the students added an Ozobot – a tiny toy robot on wheels – to the city and set it free to explore. To help the Ozobot in its travels, the students added color codes the Ozobot was designed to recognize. These color codes are the programming language the Ozobot understands, just like a more traditional computer might understand commands written in Java or Python. The color codes enabled the students to tell the Ozobot to change its color, to speed up or slow down, or to do a U-turn. For example, near a school, the students added a code to make the Ozobot slow down. Once away from the school, the students added a code to make the Ozobot speed up. At intersections, the Ozobot would choose the next path to follow randomly, and the students had fun trying to predict where it would go next.
A city planner talked with the students to help them understand some of the ideas that go into designing a city. He helped them see the advantages of creating areas that serve similar needs, such as recreation areas that have a multiple sports fields as well as lakes, and city center areas that host the city hall, schools, post office, and other community service providers in close proximity. He helped the students consider how much thought goes into planning the cities in which they live.
A computer scientist visited the students to teach them the basics of computer programming. He emphasized to them that what they were doing in programming the Ozobots was the very same kind of thing Google’s engineers are doing to create a self-driving car. The Google car uses multiple cameras and signals from the road and from traffic monitoring devices to keep it driving toward its destination safely. The students’ Ozobots also used signals – the color codes they place on the maps – to guide their paths.
After designing their city, drawing it on a map, and adding the programming codes, each student group named their city and wrote a short story about it. These second graders are getting really good at writing sentences and paragraphs, and they enjoy telling stories. Having them write about their cities helped them think of even more features to add to them.
These kinds of interdisciplinary, team-based activities help young students see the connectedness of all the subjects they have been learning. They get to use their imaginations and make them come alive through drawing, stories, and technology. And they get to make plans, negotiate, and cooperate with their friends. Teamwork, too, can be taught.
Writing, reading, arithmetic – and now, technology – can best be taught through such integrated, team-based, projects where all students get to create as they learn. The future of education lies not in the silos of individual subjects but in the beauty that results when you blend them.