Thursday, August 13, 2020
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Elementary kids code a robot into space

Learning how to code may be important in today’s technology-driven society, but coding has also become the latest team sport. And what’s the best way to get kids excited about coding together? A robotics competition that involves outer space, of course.

The team at Kipling measures and marks off the space for the 1st challenge during recess this morning.

Voxitatis reported on robots that kids as young as 5 could program back in October 2013. The pre-market versions of the robots were named Bo and Yana, but the Mountain View, California-based start-up that makes them now sells them under the names Dot and Dash.

Kate Schippers, the librarian at Kipling Elementary School in Deerfield, Illinois, bought Dot and Dash robots for the school last year and understands how thoroughly kids who play with, and program, them are engaged in their education.

“Dash can wear a smartphone and shoot videos; he can talk; kids can record voices and tell him where to move and what to say,” she said. “They’re very creative with the robots. They’re making up story lines; they’re designing and making costumes.”

The current project is a contest, developed by the manufacturer, now known as the Wonder Workshop. The Wonder League Robotics Competition is open to kids anywhere, ages 6 to 11, and they still have a few hundred openings for teams who want to:

  • Blast Dot and Dash out of Earth’s atmosphere
  • Navigate safely through the asteroid belt
  • Slingshot around other planets using their gravitational pull
  • And for the winners, take a trip to California to meet the artists who work on the Minions at Illumination Entertainment

NASA’s recent New Horizons expedition to Pluto inspired this year’s contest theme, according to June Lin, head of education and community at the Wonder Workshop. The robots’ adventures this year will take them to explore a newly discovered distant planet.

And for the winners, the grand prize is a free STEM field trip to California for everyone on the team plus adult chaperones. It includes a tour of Universal Studios, learning sessions with game makers, a tech talk at Google, and more.

As the school year began, Ms Schippers noticed a few girls, all in fifth grade, coming into the library during recess to play with Dot and Dash “on a consistent basis,” she said. So when she showed them the video from the Wonder Workshop announcing the competition, which came across her Facebook news feed, they loved it. A team was born!

They’ve been working on the various challenges in the competition ever since. That’s every day during recess, completely on their own time, although Ms Schippers said as the contest develops, the competition will probably involve a little after-school time as well.

“Floor space is at a premium in the school,” she said, and the rules require a dedicated space for Dot and Dash to move around. The challenges have the robots navigating a 9-by-9-foot course and performing various space-travel maneuvers. “So we just used a tarp, which they can roll up when they’re done.”

The demands of the challenges, though, take a lot more than dedicated space. Some of the moves are tricky, and there’s bound to be a lot of trial and error involved.

“Obviously, they have to be able to work out the math and measure the space,” Ms Schippers said. “But they also learn how to accept failure and move beyond it: You don’t give up. That’s a very important life lesson.”

More than 2,000 kids on about 450 teams have already signed up, but Wonder Workshop is hoping to sign up a thousand teams. The deadline for signing up is November 1, so get coding!

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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