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Robot brings new teaching methods at Prairie

Fourth-graders Jasmine (left) and Jacari work with the Finch Robot on Friday at Prairie Elementary. (Martina Baca/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- A private loan program is allowing second- through fourth-grade students at Prairie Elementary to learn computer coding in an easy and fun way as they use the Finch Robot.

Dan Harrington, a computer education teacher at Prairie Elementary, has always tried to bring new teaching methods to his classes. In 2015, he launched a pilot program with six third-grade students using Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots. The program aimed to teach students engineering design, coding and programming.

As an effort to continue expanding technological opportunities for his students, Harrington applied to a loan program sponsored by Birdbrain Technologies. The organization's main job is develop learning tools to engage children in different science fields such as engineering and computer science. Birdbrain Technologies is the creator of the Finch Robot, and its loan program allows schools to have a temporary use of the robot.  

“I applied and I found out we would get 15 of them, which works very well because my class size is a little under 30,” Harrington said. “So we have two students per robot.”

The machine is a small and looks like a finch. It’s designed to learn computer science by providing them a tangible and physical representation of code.The robot’s features include accelerometers, light, temperature, and obstacle sensors.

Students are able to control the movement of the Finch Robot as well as voices through a computer program called SNAP! In addition, they can manipulate the color in which its nose lights up.

Harrington said he has been exploring the Finch Robot for more than a month, but he first introduced it to his students this week. He said he’s very pleased to see such a positive response.

“It is super cool because they have like a mini computer inside,” said Jasmine, a Prairie Elementary fourth-grader. “It gets information, and they have to follow instructions.”

Harrington said the Finch Robot class not only introduces coding to students, but also helps develop problem-solving skills.

“It is a structure program, so the robots are going to do what they put in the computer and that’s great for problem solving,” Harrington said. “If the robot is not doing something they want it to do, then they (students) will go through the process of identifying the problem.”

Harrington said he encourages his students to make their own decisions and work together to find solutions to any problems they face.

“Instead of saying, ‘You have to do it this way,’ I am saying, ‘These are the tools you can use to figure it out, and if you have problems work on it together,’” Harrington said. “I will be just walking around and trying to facilitate technological issues.”

He added that he hopes students can take what they learn into their daily lives.

“Hopefully they take those kind of skills when they leave school and go home,” Harrington said. “They can do that logical thinking process of identifying a problem and solve it by themselves.”

Even though, Jasmine said she really enjoyed her first class with the Finch Robot, she found it challenging as well.

“It was hard because sometimes they just keep on running and they don’t stop,” Jasmine said.

Harrington said these first-week students are in an experimenting phase. As they get more familiar with the robot, he will challenge them with more difficult tasks.

“I am going to give them a big map on a piece of paper and they will have to put the robot on the start point, and then they can program it so it can reach the finish line,” he said. “Hopefully they are going to find a way to do it without any help.”

Harrington said that even though the Minnesota Department of Education does not require computer science classes to be in the curriculum, the District 518 board has been very supportive about expanding technological classes.

“I think exposing students to technologies that they otherwise wouldn’t be outside of the classroom is important, because how are they going to discover if they have a passion or interest in that area unless they try?” Harrington said.

He added that he wants to change the mindset that technology and science careers are fields only males should pursue.

“I am hoping to catch students at an early age to be able to identify if they have an interest -- especially girls, because the computer science industry right now is dominated by males,” Harrington said.

He noted that there are many technology jobs unfilled every year, and so these classes are a great opportunity to lead students to those careers.

“Any job you go to, more than likely they’re going to be working with computers,” Harrington said. “In fact, we are educating them now for jobs that don't even exist.”