Apr 4, 2018

Pickerington Students Learn Coding Basics With Drones

Students at Toll Gate MS learn coding basics using drones

In a busy classroom at Toll Gate Middle School, student Noah Raymer’s fingers deftly flutter across the screen of his iPad under the watchful eye of teacher Emily King.

A few taps of his index fingers later and the green LED “eyes” of a small, insect-like drone blink to life. The drone buzzes and lifts off the carpet, hovers in midair, performs two flips, and slowly drifts to the left before coming to rest again on the floor.

Mission accomplished.

Noah has successfully used basic computer coding skills to remotely program a drone to wirelessly follow his commands. The skills being used are part of the foundations of coding being done in Pickerington’s middle schools as part of the district’s computer science pathway.

“At the end of day, I’m hoping we’ll have the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk,” King said. “But ideally, we just want our kids to think critically and to solve problems by breaking big problems into tiny steps, solving those simple steps, and thereby eventually solving the big problems.” (Watch video.)

The process of teaching coding began at the beginning of the school year, using simplistic “drag-and-drop” computer applications such as Blockly and Scratch to learn basic concepts. Simply put, students were piecing elements of existing code into a correct order to learn about computer functions. The result was a basic video game in which cartoon characters the students created walked through a virtual world and performed some simple tasks.

By March, the students have expanded on those simple concepts and are “writing” basic code. Now, instead of piecing together chunks of existing code, students are writing simple code by typing in commands that ultimately direct the drones to act. Errors in this code mean the drones don’t work – and students must go back to the drawing board to figure out where they went wrong.

It’s an important process of trial and error that teaches an important lesson: It’s OK to fail, but you must keep trying.

“We are trying to create computational, critical thinkers that can globally collaborate,” King said. “That means we’re trying to teach kids they can fail and try again with a smile on their face. We’re creating problem solvers. In coding, you have to fail over and over before you find any success. I think it’s great that students have an opportunity to fail. That’s how you become problem solvers.”

This isn’t as simple as just pushing the right buttons. Kings’ students are learning about algorithms, functions, computer commands, and loops.

“This is an exact algorithm,” King said. “Students come to realize that one tiny comma where a parenthesis is supposed to be will cause your code not to run. The drone not running is due to one parenthesis in the wrong place. At this point, they are starting to write their own algorithms. They are adjusting how far forward the drone flies. They have to debug their codes.”

And along the way, it’s making learning fun and engaging students because they are learning by doing.

“This allows for stronger engagement. They’re failing, yet they’re smiling. They keep testing things. They still get frustrated, but not to the extent they were at the beginning of the year. They’re showing a failure-friendly attitude,” King said.

Fifth-grader Aubrey Jones grasps that concept. “We’re learning how to persevere with coding and trial and error,” she said.

“This is one of my favorite specials,” agrees Reagan Allison-Smith. “The first time, the program tells you how to do the code. Then, as you progress through the levels, it starts making it harder and harder for you to try. It’s really cool to see how you code something on the iPad and see how it influences something in real life. It’s amazing to see how it all comes together.”

Student Julian O’Connor said that, with a little effort, it doesn’t take too long until students can make the drones do cool tricks by flips and 360s.

The district currently owns a dozen drones that are shared among the three middle schools. Instructional Technology Coordinator Stephanie Howell said this is the kind of critical thinking skills and problem solving that begin preparing students for 21st century careers.

Teaching this kind of technology hasn’t always been this engaging because students used to sit at a computer to type in code, Howell said.

“Now, they’re getting up and they’re moving. They’re failing along the way, but that’s OK, because they’re learning what they need to try next time so they won’t fail again.”

And there is a final factor that should not be overlooked, Howell said.

“It is really cool.”

Toll Gate students learn basic coding using drones