Drones and robots used to teach children coding

9-year-old Peter Kanellis programs a micro:bit at Thursday's Learning to Code Event

By Brianne Ledda and Chelsea Sullivan

Drones, small robotic balls called Spheros, and micro:bits – cheap and versatile hardware designed for computer education – were part of a program to teach coding outside of school during a Westbury-based workshop on Thursday.

While some Long Island schools can afford to equip every student with an iPad and buy more than one 3D printer, others struggle to give kids equal access to technology.

“I took a coding class and I moved to a different school that didn’t have any kind of coding, so I gave up on it,” Brandon Barrios, a 15-year-old student said, as he programmed a micro:bit. He wants to become a videogame programmer when he’s older.

The workshop was run by We Connect the Dots, a nonprofit working to bridge that digital divide by investing in drones, robots and 3D printers, among other things, to loan or sell to schools, and to use in its own programs. Its for-profit side, Laurie Carey Consulting LLC, develops and trains teachers in technology-based science curriculums to help maximize their equipment’s impact.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists computer science as one of the fastest growing fields, but only a little more than one in four high schools teach computer programming, according to Computer Science Education Week’s website. The physical devices needed can be expensive and difficult to maintain in traditional K-12 school contexts, Colleen Lewis, an associate professor who specializes in computer science education research at Harvey Mudd College, explained.

“Early access to CS [computer science] instruction can get students interested in the field and help students understand the computational world around them,” Lewis said.

Psychologists warn, however, that technology in the wrong context can have harmful effects on a developing child’s brain. The earlier a child is exposed to technology, the more it might alter their brains, Joseph Volpe, a psychologist and the executive director of East End Psychological Services, P.C., said. He pointed out decreasing attention spans and increased suicide rates among young teens.

But he acknowledged that in the right context, with supportive and nurturing adults, there can be many advantages to using the tech, including the development of creativity and analytical thinking.

“It’s how they ultimately will employ the technology,” Volpe said.

Interactive programming and robotics experiences in early childhood show a number of benefits, including increased interest in technology and engineering, and improvements in computational skills, research suggests. Nathan George, an assistant professor of psychology at Adelphi University, emphasized that though the technological tools are important, the curriculum is critical, driving the value of those tools.

“Programming experience is valuable itself, as are outcomes related to children’s interest and competence in technology and engineering, but programming is also a potentially engaging and enjoyable route to fostering skills in other domains, such as fine motor skills, language, and even the creative arts,” he said.

Some students, like 13-year-old Alyma Sylla, who wants to become a doctor, aren’t interested in coding as a career but found the skills they were learning at the workshop useful anyway.

“It’s going to help me learn how to put things together,” Sylla said, as she dragged another line of code into the project on her computer.

About Brianne Ledda 7 Articles
Brianne is a sophomore journalism major and environmental studies minor at Stony Brook University, where she’s an assistant news editor at The Statesman.