Computational Thinking in Storytime with Robots

I’ve been reading and thinking A LOT about computational thinking (CT) and coding this Winter as part of my work on the Libraries Ready to Code initiative. And by A LOT, I mean A LOT, A LOT. Needless to say, that thinking has not stayed put in my coding programs for older kids and teens, like  <HPLCode>, or in the Maker Club. It has spilled over into every aspect of my work at the library, including storytime.

Storytime has always been about supporting early literacy (EL) and learning. What is so cool about computational Flyer which explains computational thinkingthinking is that it aligns so nicely with so much of what we already do at the library, even in storytime. Every time I mention CT or coding in either storytime or a family program, a grown-up speaks up and makes the connection, on their own, between traditional literacy and code or computational thinking. “Making a program (by connecting blocks of code) is like building a sentence,” for example.

The Plan

5 minutes: As families entered, I asked them to “get ready for storytime”. For regulars, this meant following a procedure they knew. For new families I broke down the “get ready for storytime” into: take off your shoes if you want to (ok at our library because of the snow, mud, etc. that is outside), hang up your coat if you brought one, choose a storytime mat, and meet me at the reading area.

5 minutes: When we were gathered in the reading area, I asked kids “what is a robot?” Kids shouted out ideas and led us to talk about what robots do, who designs them and why. I then asked the group “what is the difference between you and a robot?” and “what is similar?”

I then showed the group my code-a-pillar and pointed out the parts of the robot (power button, lights, sensors, code blocks, wheels, etc.) I told them this was my turn to play with the robot but they would all have a turn after we played and read together.

7-10 minutes: Book #1, Pete the Cat, Robo-Pete by James Dean (Harper Collins, 2015)
As with any storytime reading, this was a conversation! We talked about patterns in the story and kids tried to anticipate what might happen next based on previous occurrences in the story. We also compared Robo-Pete to what we knew about robots.

5-7 minutes: Feltboard Robots
Next we built a robot as a group on the felt board. I cut enough similar pieces of felt into recognizable shapes to make two robots. I divided the felt board into 3 sections. If you have used Scratch or other block coding platform, you will recognize the similarity of the 3 sections (the stage, scripts area and blocks palette). I built one robot beforehand and had the other identical pieces in the thin section of the board. They pieces were arranged by shape. As a group we talked about the robot’s parts and what we thought each might be used for. We then started building the new robot out of the other parts. The idea here was to support shape knowledge but also to practice the process of articulating making, doing, or building something. I asked where we should start (at the bottom, they yelled). I then asked kids to tell me the shape and color of the part they wanted me to add next and I would move the felt pieces over. We built the robot you see here. This activity also became a station for further exploration after the group time.

7-10 minutes: If You’re A Robot And You Know It by David Carter (Cartwheel Books, 2015)
Before we read (and sang and danced) to this song, I mean, book, we talked about circuit boards which is featured in the text. Kids obviously quickly identified with this familiar song and jumped up to act it out. The text of the book repeats in a similar fashion to the song and kids move different robot parts in each each verse.

Image: booksamillion.com

7-10 minutes: Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2009)
To finish off the reading portion of storytime we read a book that is just silly! Be ready to use your animated voices and be loud!

image: goodreads.com

3 minutes: Clap Your Hands by They Might be Giants
Before we moved on to the station portion of storytime, we danced together. I told them there were three actions we would do in this song: clap hands, stomp feet and jump in the air. I asked them “How do we know when do each action?” Kids answered with ideas like “until it stops!” I brought out the images of each action (5 hands clapping, 5 feet stomping, 4 jumping) to match the number of times the singer says each action and then counted as we danced and did the actions. I mentioned that the song is divided up into beats or sections (measures) so that the musicians and dancers know when changes will happen.

Stations

Code-a-pillar play
Here kids programmed the code-a-pillar to move towards a target. Some kids spent time figuring out how it worked and understanding which arrow was left or right. Kids took turns coding and even collaborated on where the robot should go (“It’s looking for something to eat.”). Grown-ups guided play at times, talking about the sequence of events that need to happen first, etc. and about directionals.

Cube Stackers
Future Coders: Cube Stackers by Alex Toys is basically a board game that involves cubes with robot parts on the different sides. Kids build robots by twisting an turning the sides based on instructions not he game cards. It is primarily for kids 5+. In the summer I have several 5+ kids that come to storytime and this was a hit with them. Whole families took time to work through this thoughtful game.

 

Aluminum Can Robots
Kids built robots by adding magnetized parts to cleaned off cans. I encouraged grown-ups to talk with kids as they built, asking open-ended questions about the robot, what is could do, etc.
To prepare, I collected and cleaned aluminum cans for the robot bodies. I hot glued small magnets to objects like big buttons, clothespins, pipe cleaners, etc. for robot parts. Parts were set out all mixed up in bins and the bodies  were laid out separately to encourage kids to create their own kind of robot.

Robot Coloring Sheets
This activity was great for kids who like to color or needed a quieter activity between other stations.

Feltboard Robots
Younger children really loved this activity and enjoyed repeating what we had done as a group.

Robot Party app on the mounted iPad
Sago Mini’s Robot Party is a giggle-inducing group activity that involves building digital robots that dance and more. Perfect for groups of two or three because the app features multi-touch so kids (or kids and grown-ups) can work together.

How it Went

Families loved this storytime for the richness of the activities and the obvious learning. They appreciated the CT and EL asides and the play ideas they could replicate at home.

When I first got a code-a-pillar I thought it would be kind of loud and garish for storytime, but not so. The sounds and lights are less intense in a group setting and the code-a-pillar moves at just the right speed for young children learning to code for the first time.

Makers2Mentors: Let it Glow Family Program

As part of my library’s year long Makers2Mentors initiative, I hosted a family program around the winter holidays that introduced computational thinking and Computer Science concepts in a computer-less program. We made light-up, pop-up cards! This program, and its name, were inspired by SparkFun’s Let it Glow light-up card projects. In additional to the learning that happened, this program served a social purpose; supporting family engagement and bringing community together during Alaska’s darkest time of year.

flyer for Let it Glow program

Intended Outcomes

  • families will understand the basics of how electricity work
  • families will learn basic CS concepts (algorithms, conditionals, events, inputs, outputs)
  • families will be introduced to computational thinking (CT) skills in a low stress, hands-on experience
  • families will see experience play-based learning that blends a traditional art form (paper craft), literacy (writing a greeting card), and tech (electrical components), instead of one or the other
  • families will play and learn together and meet new neighborsAs part of my library’s year long
  • families will attend a program for the first time

When, Who and Where
Date: Saturday, close to Winter Solstice in December

Time: 10:30-11:30am (could have been longer with more time to decorate, but the space is popular and often hard to schedule for more than 1 hour)

Staff: 3 (me, another grown-up who is a casual employee/sub and a teen mentor who volunteered time towards the high school’s community service requirement)

Ages: families with kids 4+ (best for ages 6+)

Location: library’s meeting room

Advertising: library’s dedicated Makers2Mentors webpage, library calendar, flyers posted around town, social media, local radio, newspaper and community online calendars.

Equipment/Supplies
For room:

  • large monitor for displaying graphics of electrical circuit and template
  • laptop or tablet with slides to display graphics
  • tables pushed together to make 3 large tables or stations
  • a handful of chairs for those who wanted or needed to sit (not one for everyone so we had more space)
Shared Supplies for Each of the 3 tables:
(on each table when families arrived)

  • 5mm conductive copper tape- 3 for each table (extra tape used for other programs)
  • regular tape (like Scotch brand)- 2 dispensers for each of 3 tables
  • instruction signs- 1 for each of table
  • gluesticks- 4 for each table
  • scissors- 4 each table

Electrical and Paper Supplies for each child/card:
(distributed to tables after I described the project, defined computational thinking, and explained how electricity works)

  • 1- 12mm coin batteries, plus extra for troubleshooting or additional experimentation
  • 2 pieces of cardstock (1- white and 1-red or green)
    • white: printed with SparkFun’s template #1 for electrical part of card (see project link)
    • red or green: printed with SparkFun’s template #2 for the tree portion of the card (see project link)
  • 2- 3mm LEDs in miscellaneous colors (Spark Fun)
  • LillyPad button boards (Spark Fun)- the button is used as a switch so the card lights up when the button, placed at the bottom of the card, is pressed
Shared Decorating Supplies:
(at front table for families to take when they were ready)
  • Winter and Christmas stickers for decorating cards- enough for approximately 5-8 stickers per card
  • markers and pens in a variety of colors- 2 baskets of markers/crayons for each of 3 tables

Program Plan

60 minutes prior to start: set up and answered any last-minute program staff questions

5-10 minutes: At the beginning of the program, I welcomed families, introduced the Makers2Mentors initiative and then gave a quick explanation of how electricity works and how it relates to computing. With only an hour, I kept the explanation short and used a graphic displayed on the monitor to help families visualize the abstract concept. Kids who had attended maker programs previously, and knew about electricity, helped me.

Flyer which explains computational thinking

DRAFT computational thinking flyer for my library

I then displayed an image of the template we were going to use (#1) and described the process (CT: algorithm) for creating a circuit and the light up portion of the card. I started by explaining the “problem” (CT: decomposition)- we needed to make a pop-up card light up using an electrical circuit and LEDs. I explained how to use the template to create the circuit, pointing out each step (CT: algorithms) to be followed, and I asked what patterns kids could see as we verbally worked through the process (CT: pattern recognition). I wanted families to have the maximum amount of time to actually make the cards, so the talking to the group portion took less than 10 minutes. I had the same template and directions displayed at each table for reference.

50 minutes: For the remainder of the program, each child took a template and either created the circuit on their own or with a family member. Some families with multiple children worked on one card as a family instead of each child making one.

The basic idea is that kids apply conductive tape to the lines on the template #1, adding LEDs, the batter for power a button (switch) in the appropriate places. The template has the steps numbered to make it easier to follow along. Once the circuit was working, and the LEDs were turning on when the button was pressed, families moved on to decorating the second layer of the card (template #2) with stickers, drawings and messages. As we talked with families, we used vocabulary that connected to computational thinking and computing (circuit, input/output, switch, debugging, pattern recognition, algorithm, etc.) During the hands-on portion of the program families used what they knew, or learned, about electrical circuits and determined what information could be applied to the card project (CT: abstraction).

30 minutes after program: clean up

Family working together to make a light up, pop up card.

How It Went

  • The program was a success!
  • We have hosted several family programs and maker programs for kids over the past few years so I anticipated a large crowd (for our size library). The attendance, 52 kids and grown-ups, did not disappoint.
  • It was a little challenging to manage this size of group with only 3 of us in the lead, especially with the fact that many of the kids knew me better than the other two program staff. (“Claudia, how do you…?”) But, as a result, grown-ups were empowered to participate- helping their kids make the card and troubleshoot. I modeled how to support kids instead of doing it for them. This was especially important when it became clear that some of the batteries were older than others, not working well, and needed to be switched out to make the circuit work.
  • I had enough materials on hand for the families that attended.
  • Beyond remodeling the library, the space accommodated the group size without requiring registration, just barely.
  • Most of the kids who attended were ages 4-9, but several were closer to 12. The ideal age for this program is probably 6-12 because of the troubleshooting aspect of the program. Several of the younger kids got pretty frustrated when their circuit didn’t work. On the flip side, it was valuable for them to see grown-ups work through the troubleshooting process and see how we handle ‘mistakes’ or something that isn’t working the way we intended.
  • Several families were attending their first program at the library and among the grown-ups were grandparents and both moms and dads. Some families knew each other, some met for the first time. because of the size of the space, families interacted as they shared materials and worked side by side.
  • Part of the program’s success had to do with the activity, but the publicity surrounding the Makers2Mentors grant funded initiative and offering the program during the Winter school break on a Saturday helped also. Many grown-ups mentioned that they liked the combination of electrical and paper/art. I got lots of nods when I made the electrical/computer connection.
  • Every family left the library with a working pop-up card that lit up, I made sure of it!

What I Would Do Differently

For future iterations of the program, I would:
  • modify the age range for the program to 6-12. Some families would still bring younger siblings, but the expectation would be slightly different.
  • have all new batteries to avoid the power issues we had.
  • identify ways to help families articulate the CT and electricity concepts in addition to being able to make a functioning circuit.
  • plan a longer program to allow more time for deeper learning, debugging, and decorating.
  • include this project in the almost-monthly Maker Club program line up (ages 8-11).

Makers2Mentors: HPLCode Program

Searching for images for a Scratch project background

Beginning in November of last year, a group of kids ages 11-14 started meeting at the library once a week after school as part of a new program, <HPLCode>, which is part of my library’s <M2M> or Makers2Mentors initiative. (Read general information about the initiative and Libraries Ready to Code here.) In years past, we’ve offered intros to coding, Hour of Code sessions, a web design series and a week long coding camp (thanks to a grad student at Carnegie Melon’s Entertainment Technology program), but we have never offered a program that allows kids to delve deeper into coding, computer science and computational thinking; particularly programs specifically for ages 11-14 (middle schoolers). We decided to offer the <HPLCode> program for a few reasons.

  • We recognized that understanding both Computational Thinking (CT) and Computer Science (CS) concepts is part of literacy in the Digital Age. With CS and CT skills, kids would be better prepared for the work force that lies ahead regardless of the field or occupation they choose.
  • There are no computer science courses offered through area schools. I recognized a void that the library could help fill.
  • The kids who have regularly attended the Maker Club and LEGO Club events (for 8-12 year olds) were aging out and expressing interest in other opportunities to keep making and creating using digital tools.

The first part of <HPLCode> ran for 7 weeks. 5 weeks included “formal” instruction (led by me with the help of video tutorials) followed by free play, tween style, inspired by a particular concept. The goals of the program were:

  • introduce key CS concepts common across programming languages and provide opportunities for kids to apply those concepts
  • provide a new social experience for kids interested in Computer Science; connect kids from different schools and friend groups
  • attract more and different kids to the library, including those underrepresented in formal library programs
  • connect kids to CS professionals with a connection to Alaska
  • offer a CS program that allowed kids to help mold its design
  • broaden after school ‘making’ opportunities for kids older than 12
  • make accessible the opportunity for kids to create a digital project that addressed a problem in their life or in the community
  • test the program prototype for the Libraries Ready to Code project
picture of boy watching Skye interview on monitor

HPLCode Interview with Lauren Farleigh of Dote

When: Thursdays, 4-5:30 (extended to 4-6 based on kids’ requests) November 2 – Dec 21 (except for Thanksgiving Day)

Who: Kids ages 11-14 (primarily 11-12 years)

What: Kids were introduced to basic Computer Science and Computational Thinking concepts while they learned to code in Javascript and design basic video games or choose your own adventure apps.

Where: Library’s meeting room which offers conference style seating, dry erase board for drawing/planning, and a large monitor for projecting slides, teaching videos, Skype video for expert interviews, and group work

Resources: Code.org (CS curriculum, App Lab and Game Lab), App Authors, Scratch, Google CSMakeCode (for micro:bit)

CS Concepts: Algorithms, Functions, Variables, Loops, Conditionals, Events

Computational Thinking Concepts and Ideas: Abstraction, Decomposition, and Pattern Recognition, Debugging and Problem Solving, Prototyping, Feeling connected to the broader CS community

Equipment and Materials: Chromebooks, micro:bits, Scratch challenge cards, large monitor for projecting slides or video, flash drives for each and ear buds or headphones for each (provided by Friends group) with splitters to foster shared projects, paper/pencils for storyboarding, designing and problem solving, snacks

CS Professionals interviewed: Lauren Farleigh (dote.com), Reid Magdanz and Grant Magdanz (Chert- Alaska’s Native Language Keyboard app), and Kasey Aderhold (IRIS).

Staffing: Myself and one local high school mentor with previous programming and game design experience

Successes:

  • We received notice about LRtC participation and the grant award at the end of October. The grant funding was needed to move ahead with <HPLCode> as planned so up until then, the program was only tentative. We were able to go ahead with the dates and got to work with last minute advertising. We attracted several kids (4-7), all who had not participated in formal library programs before. The group size actually allowed for me to work out some of the planning bugs as we proceeded with the program plan. it was a prototype. For example, the kids were on the younger end of the range and less experienced with maker projects and coding in general. We spread out the CS concepts over the 7-week program and spent more time with each concept than initially anticipated.
  • The majority of the small group, which grew from 4 to 7,  participated each week and continued with the follow up program after the Winter Break (<HPLCode> Lab), allowing for deeper exploration and practice of CS concepts.
  • I found a high school student to help with the program who will continue to act as a teen mentor during the Makers2Mentors initiative. His participation continues a legacy of integrating high school students interested in STEM careers as leaders for youth programming. These mentors help us extend program reach and support their growth as young adults.
  • While we started the program using Code.org’s App Lab and Game Lab (remixing pre-made apps and creating choose your own adventure apps) because of the nice selection of associated video tutorials found in the various curriculum, kids ultimately wanted to use Scratch for their projects. That was fine with me because one of the program’s intended outcomes was to get input from the participating kids and offer them the opportunity to help mold this prototype program and the next iteration. I was clear from the beginning that this program was an experiment and I needed their help defining it.
  • I introduced a Mini Design Challenge during the 6th and 7th week of the <HPLCode> portion of the program to spark project ideas using the resources we had available. Kids loved this and immediately got to work. They helped define the must-have elements for the challenge projects.
  • The program’s teen mentor entered and won the Congressional App Challenge for Alaska after I connected with him initially about helping <HPLCode> and then sent him info about the national challenge.
  • An issue with access to Scratch (see below) initiated a conversation about digital citizenship, respectful participation in the Scratch community and responsible game design.
  • Interviews with CS professionals introduced kids to ‘start ups’, the different jobs available in the world of CS, and online communities like GitHub where they can participate and develop their skills beyond the library program, even in communities outside the traditional tech hubs.

The circled portion of the image shows the elements of the challenge kids defined.

Challenges:

  • The code.org curriculum options beyond Hour of Code are extensive, but I couldn’t quite find one that fit my age range, length of program, topics and learning environment exactly. They seem best suited for a classroom experience where kids are with the educator everyday or meet regularly over a long period. All of the curriculum included the concepts I wanted to introduce but they were taught amidst other concepts or ideas (how the internet works, for example) that I didn’t have time to include.
  • The program attracted less kids than I had hoped and only 1 or 2 girls, depending on the week. Beyond gender, the program did attract a diverse group of kids all of whom had not participated in library programs before. (I am offering a Girls Code one-off program in February to try a different approach to connecting girls with CS/CT. I am also working with the local Girl Scouts troops on an overnight event for girls related to the new badges focused on CS and robotics.)
  • The kids had minimal coding experience and had not participated in the library’s maker programs, in particular, so they were less familiar with CT in practice, with me or the other kids. It took some time to get comfortable with each other and figure out their interests and experience.
  • The kids who attended were younger than I had anticipated (11-12 mostly) and either had a project in mind that was beyond the resources we had available or had no project in mind. We developed the Mini Design Challenge for week 6 and 7 to address this (see above.)
  • We weren’t able to order and receive the Chromebooks until 4 weeks into the program (because of a funding delay), so we had to borrow Chromebooks from another city department for the first part of the program.
  • When the kids wanted to switch to Scratch, we discovered that our library’s IP address had been blocked by Scratch for violations of the Scratch Community Guidelines. City IT staff helped us with a temporary solution between program sessions while we contacted the Scratch team about the issue. We discovered that someone using our public computers or wifi had posted ‘flirtatious’ and inappropriate comments about a project and once blocked had tried to create a new account with the same email. We worked with the Scratch team to get our address unblocked and discussed the guidelines and digital citizenship at <HPLCode> the following week.
  • The teen mentor has programming experience, but wasn’t comfortable talking in front of the group formally, I discovered after we started the program. I was initially expecting him to co-teach with me, filling in my knowledge gaps, but that didn’t work out. Towards the end of the 7 weeks, we finally figured out what role was a good fit for him and he worked best as a near peer mentor. He was happy with that, but it meant more work for me learning and preparing for each session. I will have clearer job descriptions and expectations in the future.
  • The teen mentor has CS experience, but is less comfortable with CT concepts (decomposition, for example) and skills which was interesting and a bit surprising. He was reluctant to use Javascript or Blockly, for example. After I figured that out, I gave him tasks to help reinforce those ideas. I also gave him parameters for tasks that were real-world related, for example ideas for the mini-design challenge that required a certain programming language, a specific tool, addressed a problem, etc.

In January when school was back in session, we began phase 2 of this program, <HPLCode> Lab. The idea behind this portion of the program was to offer kids equipment, space and support to continue working on their mini design challenge or try something new. Other kids were welcome to join if they had some coding experience. More on this piece when it finishes in early February.

Makers2Mentors logo in black and white

Makers2Mentors: 1

Happy New Year!

2017 was a crazy year all around, but it was exceptionally busy for me. The latter part of the year was consumed with my work on the Caldecott Award Committee and the Makers2Mentors <M2M> initiative I started, thanks to a Libraries Ready to Code grant funded by ALA and Google. Mum’s the word, for now, regarding my year of evaluating picture books, but I am ready to share about the <M2M> project.

Makers2Mentors logo in black and whiteWhat:
Makers2Mentors is a series of programs and opportunities for local youth and families to explore Computational Thinking and Computer Science in age-friendly ways. As part of the Ready to Code project, I am a member of a cohort (28 libraries in 21 states plus the District of Columbia) contributing to the design of a toolkit for all libraries to help kids, teens and families explore Computational Thinking and Computer Science at the library.

When:
November, 2017- August, 2018

Why:
I launched the initiative, in part, to address the huge gap in access to Computer Science education in my community by providing a variety of free programs for diverse audiences. And beyond the library, we wanted to stimulate a community conversation about why Computational Thinking and Computer Science are vital skills for Homer’s kids regardless of whether or not they work as a programmer, journalist, mariner, artist, etc.

This project is also an extension of my work with families around the idea of media mentorship and literacy in the Digital Age. Understanding CS and being able to communicate with digital tools reflect the evolution of literacy, much like the printing press did in 1234 (Asia) and then in 1440 (Europe). Finding information and creating content still happen on paper, but much of our  information exchange is happening online. How do we help kids, even young children,  navigate both traditional media and new media not solely as consumers, but as active participants and creative designers, producers and writers? How do we help families and educators support literacy and learning with tools that include high quality apps, digital tools and even robots in and out of the library?

How:
This initiative targets preschoolers, older kids, teenagers and their families. It is designed to capture the interests of many- maybe not all at the same program- by showing the many faces of CT and CS. Each program or component of the initiative will include both digital and ‘unplugged’ aspects and will have its own unique goal or intended outcome. Along with formal programs, we’ll also start circulating robot kits, add new CS related books to the collection and share information with parents about CT and CS. As part of <M2M>, kids and teens can be makers and they can also be mentors. Our community lacks a large CS community, so training teens as mentors empowers them and fills a need; additional instructors to help guide and teach.

I’ll be highlighting some of the programs and resources I use, including challenges and successes, over the coming months.

Media Literacy Week 2017

How are you celebrating Media Literacy Week 2017?

According to NAMLE, media literacy is defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”

Here is what I am up to:

  • Today, I wrote about media literacy in storytime on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center blog.
  • Tonight, I’ll be talking about media literacy with my library director on KBBI AM 890, our community’s public radio station, as part of an introduction to the airing of a media literacy panel recorded in September.
  • This week, I’ll be including media literacy in storytime.
  • This month,I am leading <HPLCode/>, an afterschool program that teaches coding concepts to 11-14 year olds and gets them creating their own digital content. This program is part of our Makers to Mentors <M2M> initiative sponsored by ALA and funded by Google (Libraries Ready to Code).
  • This year, we are promoting our Teen Digital Citizenship Challenge, a curated list of resources and activities teens and their families can try to learn more about media literacy and digital citizenship.