As one enters the unassuming design lab at Sanford Middle School, there’s not much to indicate the magic that occurs there.
It resembles your average middle school computer lab with a few rows of computers, a teacher’s desk, and a projector. However, when the students arrive and those computers are booted up, it’s nothing short of amazing.
As part of their International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme (MYP) curriculum, Sanford is working to expand their design classes to include more computer literacy components. The first trial for this expansion is an Intro to Coding class taught by Mz. Nora Helf. Designed by Helf, the class includes a section on programming Finch robots.
Helf began the class with a short video of Simone Giertz with some of her robots. The take-away?
“You don’t need to be an engineer to be an inventor.”
Despite the excitement surrounding the robots, Helf easily maintained control of the class. Any time things seemed to be getting out of hand, Helf called out “coders” and was answered by the entire class in unison as they called back “rock!” before quieting back down.
The students were encouraged to program the Finch to create a drawing, as an interactive game, or to have it express emotions. The results of their efforts are inspirational. Several groups named their Finches and had them create works of art. Herman Barbados Heart and Dumbledore the Mighty were just two of these artistic bots.
The games ranged from simple mazes, to a Dance Dance Revolution clone where the Finch would dance to the lit arrows. There were battle bots that could sense when one of the Finch robots would leave the field. One group used the Finch as a game controller which would shoot when the Finch was pointed down and flashed the LEDs and played a sound when the game was over.
The Finches with personality were also diverse. There were happy bots who played music and danced when the lights were turned down and angry bots who growled when they were moved. The one thing that was clear regardless of the final outcome was that these students were engaged and excited about learning how to program their robot.
The Finch robots were on loan from Birdbrain Technologies LLC. According to Aparna Brown, Helf’s contact at the company, they currently have 850 Finch robots circulating on loan, and plan to raise that number to 1000 robots for the 2016-2017 school year.
Brown stated “In the little over 2 years that the program has been running we’ve loaned to 200 schools and libraries, and we estimate that over 25,000 students have programmed a Finch robot due to the loan program.”
With the success of this test flight, Helf is working on funding the purchase of a set of the Finch robots to permanently reside at Sanford.