MONTCLAIR, NJ - On Friday, a new flock of Finches arrived from BirdBrain Technologies (Tom Lauwers and Carnegie Mellon University) at Mount Hebron School.
The "birds" run on Snap!, an iteration of the Scratch platform that many students are already familiar with. The purchase of the programmable robots ($100 each) was funded by a MFEE grant of $1000 written by Daniel Taylor, STEM Coordinator at Mount Hebron Middle School. This brings the total to around 20 finches, allowing more students to be involved in the process of computing and learning skills that will prepare them for STEM careers.
Computing is often misunderstood. Many think of it as making video games or apps, fixing or building computers. Although this is true to some extent, the concept of computing is much more pervasive. Fundamentally, computing is a philosophy as much as it is anything else because, like many other things, it requires a methodical approach to problem solving and reconsidering options. Consequently, collaboration, creativity and innovation are requisites as they allow the individual to share in experience and knowledge, coming to a newly formed conclusion, or iteration of an idea. Computing is not successful by following rote rules and directions. Instead, it requires the individual to synthesize knowledge in a new way, branching connections between previously learned information and newly formed realizations of information.
Mount Hebron teachers have been encouraging students to get involved with this for 15 months. In the fall of 2013, after Dr. Ursula Wolz brought the project to everyone's attention. They were accepted into a program on behalf of BirdBrain, Tom Lauwers and Carnegie Mellon. They lent Mount Hebron 50 Finches to be used for a school-wide event
in December 2013 to expose all students to at least one hour of coding during Computer Science Education Week
. This was the turning point as a majority of the students AND teachers were pleased and engaged by the ease of which a newcomer could learn the concept of coding and computer programming via the Finch. It was so successful that students and teachers were asking to work with the Finches again.
At the same time, Dr. Ursula Wolz (RiverSound Solutions) and Daniel Taylor continued to work with the students throughout the remainder of the school year. By the spring of 2014, they had a cohort of students learning Java and Processing; two other forms of computer language. These students worked throughout the summer of 2014 with Dr. Wolz, establishing a fledgling Montclair Coding Community and have continued their pursuit of excellence in computer science at MHS this fall. In addition, they have also developed a project and will be submitting it to the Verizon Mobile App contest this month (November 2014).
The use of the finches is a launching platform to get students curious and engaged about coding and STEM careers. Within 5-10 minutes teachers have seen k-5 children manipulate the Finch successfully and independently. It is stunning how quickly they take to it. Furthermore, the learning curve is extremely rapid and students find themselves completely competent and computing within 1-2 hours. This may be one of the easiest ways for any student to learn about coding and problem solving in general. The school plans on continuing with the endeavor for many years to come and confidently expect this project to involve a larger MPS community within several years, hopeful that a recently submitted NSF grant will come to fruition. Now that there are 20 Finches, 60 or more students can engage which allows the project to spread multiple locations or to hold multiple learning sessions simultaneously.
More Finches may need to be purchased in the near very future, but that is a good problem to have.