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Written by MITCH MAERSCH   
Wednesday, 06 January 2016 20:25

Tomorrow’s computer programmers, engineers  starting in middle school

Don’t be deceived by balls rolling around the Cedar Grove-Belgium Middle School library. It’s just the start for fifth-graders like Sammy Berndt, who wants to become a computer programmer like her dad.

Using apps on a tablet, students in the Coding Club are programming robotic balls called Spheros to outline various shapes and change colors. Sometimes, the spheres follow the paths the students want. Sometimes, they don’t.

“It’s fun to play around with it and see all the different stuff you can do with it,” Berndt said. “The only problem is you’ve got to troubleshoot. It’s very frustrating at times. It stretches out your thinking.”

“It works your mind. It challenges you,” said Natalie Hopeman, Berndt’s partner. “It also helps you with math. You have to find out what the angle is and how much you want it to go.”

At a recent club meeting, the pair was trying to make the sphere outline a star. Classmates Will Stemwell and Deven Soerens were excited to show their sphere travel in the shape of a pentagon.

“It feels good to get it right,” Soerens said.

As with any technology, that doesn’t always happen. But Soerens has a plan in those cases.

“I just think to myself, try it again, try to do it better,” he said. “It’s pretty fun. I like doing engineering stuff and troubleshooting stuff.”

Using a grant from the Cedar Grove-Belgium Education Foundation, fifth-grade teacher Sherry Schwabenlender started the club in the second half of last year. It meets weekly but the 20 students - about 25% of the entire fifth grade - would love more time, especially after participating in the national Hour of Code.

“They’re excited about it, that’s for sure,”Schwabenlender said. “They are so engaged.”

So are the teachers, who watch with pride as students work together to make their spheres follow the correct path.

“It’s the problem solving that they’re doing, and just perseverance,” Schwabenlender said. “To be able to fix mistakes.”

Schwabenlender will provide guidance but not necessarily the answers.

“I’m reluctant to because I want to see if they can figure it out on their own,” she said.

One girl did, programming her sphere to outline a Christmas tree with four branches on each side.

“Seventy-two lines of code is quite a bit for a fifth-grader,” Schwabenlender said.

Once the fifth-graders got going, technology learning continued. Sixth-graders are making their own apps and some come to the Coding Club, and more than one third of the seventh-graders participate in Makers Club, which meets the same time and place as Coding Club. They are creating amphibious vehicles with the spheres.

“We can just build stuff,” said Sara Burns as she tested her vehicle. “It’s kind of rewarding because you did hard work on it.”

But it doesn’t feel like work. Yet.

“Coding is like a game, still,” seventh-grade teacher and Makers Club adviser Sarah Burke said.

Sometimes, the fifth-graders even help the seventh-graders. Some students — girls and boys alike — are drawn to coding and programming, and others to the spheres and creating the vehicles.

“It’s awesome,” Burke said.

Excited eighth-graders are already asking when they get to play.

Image Information: PROGRAMMING ROBOTIC BALLS using apps captured the interest of fifth-graders Sammy Berndt (left) and Natalie Hopeman during last month’s Coding Club meeting at the Cedar Grove-Belgium Middle School library.             Photo by Sam Arendt

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