Bots help students learn computer science


Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick watched as small Ozobots circled around a track on a desk in Brownstown Central Middle School’s library.

The Ozobots, small car-like figures, would change speeds, turn in every direction, back up and more.

During her interaction with students involved with programming the Ozobots as part of the school’s Hour of Code club, McCormick said she found the program impressive.

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McCormick visited the school Thursday morning as part of National Computer Science Week and has since visited other schools in the state to see how each is using similar technology.

Sixth-graders Brett Coombs and Keetan Burcham-Jones talked to McCormick about how the OzoBots are programmed by color codes drawn by markers on a track made of poster board.

A blue, black, blue code make the Ozobots go fast. A green, black, red code would lead to a left turn. A green, red, green, red code would command a spin.

McCormick said students and families should feel lucky to have a program within their school system that gives students a different set of skills.

“They’re very fortunate to have this opportunity,” she said following the tour.

McCormick said Brownstown Central’s program could serve as a template for schools across the state.

“Part of our goal is to go see best practices and then go share that with folks,” she said.

She said Brownstown was an example of best practices and was impressed the school had such a program given its size. The quality of the program is credited to the commitment of a number of people in the corporation, she said.

“I come from a smaller district myself, so I know resources are always scarce for all of us, but the commitment to this says a lot about the central office, to the principal, to the teachers, to the instructional assistant,” McCormick said.

McCormick said she remains realistic about how long it may take to offer similar programs throughout the state.

The issue is funding and finding personnel to implement such programs, which can be difficult given the budget constraints many districts face.

“To scale it, you have to have the resources to do it, you have to have human capital to do it and the financial resources for that and I’m very cognizant of that,” she said. “It takes a commitment and prioritizing and it’s important for all kids to have the opportunity. That’s what we need to work on, so from the governor’s office to the General Assembly and from our office and local levels there needs to be alignment there.”

The school started the Hour of Code program at the beginning of the year and spends an hour each Wednesday as a club to work on programming skills in a variety of ways, said Karen Ault, library media specialist. The idea for the club came from a survey of students last year about how the school needed to offer more clubs and time to spend in them.

“I knew there was a lot of interest in the Hour of Code among the students and they don’t really get many coding experiences other places,” she said. Last year, the school also became involved in a robotics program which allows participants to compete against other schools in robotics competitions. That program has generated even more interest in coding and technology and provided a springboard for the Hour of Code, Ault said.

“The robotics program and the Hour of Code do go a little hand-in-hand,” she said.

Twenty-six students are participating in the Hour of Code, Ault said.

Ault said coding helps students thing a different way and build a whole different set of skills than simply coding.

“We make them explain things to us every so often and you can see their minds working,” she said. “Things become logical to them.”

Ault said she feels the program may spark an interest in a subject a student may not have been aware of prior to joining the Hour of Code.

“I think in our area, many students may not know what’s really out there,” she said, adding some students may be familiar with concepts if their parents work in a certain industry in Jackson County.

“For most kids, they’re not aware and they don’t understand it’s not just controlling the robot,” she said. “It may be programming the robot, it may be fixing it when it breaks down or it may be updating and it helps to understand all the components.”

McCormick agreed and said the program seemed to stimulate the students’ interests in subjects and will learn skill that will benefit them no matter what direction they take.

“It’s important for kids because they’re engaged, it’s a great opportunity and it really works on skills they need regardless of what profession they go into,” she said.