WEST ORANGE, NJ – Students at Hazel and Washington Elementary Schools recently had the opportunity to code and program their own robots during the summer through a special grant award, “The Innovate NJ Summer Blended & Learning Grant,” targeted for Title I schools.

West Orange was one of only 12 school districts to receive the $98,200 grant, used to empower Title I students with the cognitive abilities to navigate the technology industry with skills that will aid in their academic success and better equip them for the future.

Terry Granato, Supervisor for Basic Skills/Title I and Fil Santiago, Director of Staff Development and Technology, applied for the grant in April. The NJ Office of Grants Management awarded the grant to the West Orange School District in June and the program ran at Washington and Hazel from July 11 through Aug. 19, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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“By blending and personalizing learning through the use of instructional technologies in creative ways, student motivation increased when students were given choices as to how and what they learned,” said Granato, describing the program. “They felt more invested in their learning and improving their achievement outcomes.”

The NJ Student Learning Standards in Math and Language Arts both explicitly and implicitly include technology as a separate set of skills and as a component of content instruction, Granato said, putting students at Hazel and Washington Schools at a disadvantage when technology tools and personal experiences are limited.

“Our goal through the grant was to take advantage of the best aspects of online and face-to-face instruction by engaging students in interactive experiences using current multimedia-rich content and digital tools while improving students’ abilities to think, communicate, and collaborate,” he said. “In a culturally diverse academic environment, technology can create an atmosphere that inspires innovation and fosters collaboration among those students who fall below proficiency levels and demonstrate poor performance in the regular class program.”

According to Granato, having these students attend a summer program where personalized learning—the twenty-first century model of differentiated instruction—incorporates technology and the use of mobile devices to help students achieve those higher levels of learning, were keys to its success. 

The program ended on Aug. 19 with showcases at both Hazel and Washington. Students demonstrated their accomplishments for parents, administrators and board members. Their newly acquired skills included:

Plant a Seed Real- Life Algorithms

Real-Life Algorithms: Paper Airplanes (Translate real-world situations to online scenarios)

Relay Programming (Communicating through codes and symbols)

Binary Bracelets (Relate the idea of storing initials on a bracelet to the idea of storing information in a computer)

Building a Foundation (Outline steps to complete a structural engineering challenge)

Dot & Dash Programmed Projects (Program Dash from an iPad to perform specific tasks)

In addition to Program Directors Granato and Santiago, Program Liaisons were Melissa Halter at Washington and Dana Peart at Hazel. Staff at Washington included Justine O’Grady, Lenny Ford, and Rebecca Giacopelli, and staff at Hazel included Marybeth Sabates, Lauran Halen, Annemarie Torre and Jennifer Sissman. Tech Support was provided by Diane Da Costa and Joanne Presbrey (Code.org trainer).

Due to the success of the program, fall and spring after-school curriculums will be designed to continue the Coding Curriculum and higher levels of Dot & Dash Programming.