A new Northwestern University-District 65 collaboration is taking computer science out of the lab – and into the gym. Fifth graders at Dawes Elementary have been beta testers this school year for a new hands-on learning curriculum, coding wearable devices to track steps and laps – a combination of technical and physical education.

“It’s the first time I started to sweat in a computer class,” said Marcelo Worsley, a Northwestern Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science, describing the active digital learning at Dawes this year.

Worsley, who’s also the parent of two District 65 students, initiated the collaboration with the district as part of a National Science Foundation research grant awarded to a Northwestern research laboratory called Technology Innovations for Inclusive Learning and Teaching (TIILT). Worsley’s successful proposal to NSF was to study the intersection of education and technology.

Last summer a cadre of District 65 teachers and Northwestern computer science students attended a weeklong workshop hosted by the TIILT Lab. The purpose of the workshop was to develop a cross-curricular program connecting computer science to real-world applications.

This school year the curriculum is being launched first with two classes of Dawes fifth graders, taught by Mindy Perry, School Librarian and Coding Teacher. Perry, a longtime champion of interactive learning in libraries, is enthused about students engaging in both practical and fun uses of coding in physical education.

Genesis Perez, Dawes fourth grader, wears a wristband with a coded micro bit to count steps. After fifth graders coded the devices, they were used by other students during gym classes. (Photo by Hillary Linden, Dawes School P.E. teacher)

The first computer science activity the students did was coding created for warmup activities like jumping jacks in gym class. Perry said students used Scratch, a widely available and free coding language they had sampled before fifth grade. It has a user-friendly visual interface and engages students while teaching them to be both creative and systematic thinkers.

“Another advantage of using Scratch is that built into it is an assessment tool, a rubric,” Perry said. The rubric enables both students and teachers to see how well the student algorithms performed in solving the established problem.

Most fifth grade students are familiar with Fitbit and other commercial wearable products that use technology to help wearers track health-related data. This year students at Dawes have had the opportunity to code a wearable device – a micro bit – that has the capacity to detect motion, direction and more.

Their micro bits are pocket-sized computers that have been adapted to wearing around the wrist or ankle. Each of these small computers has two programmable buttons and 25 red LED lights that flash messages to wearers and reveal performance data.

Students have learned to code micro bits for use as both step and lap counters in P.E. class. They’ve used a computer for writing their micro bit code, and then have downloaded the code onto their micro bits. The students have learned that perfectly sequenced steps in coding, just like steps in a good cooking or baking recipe, lead to desired performance results.

Learning the basics of coding with these small computers can help students appreciate what computer engineers do, how they use math creatively and logically to solve problems and develop technologies.

Making a connection to coding

Fifth grader Annabelle Uphoff, like most of her classmates, enjoys coding.  She’d never heard of a micro bit before, but found that coding the device and then using it in a practical way was a fun part of this year’s computer science activities.

“I remember the day my class coded our micro bits and then tested them in coding class,” Annabelle said.  “Then we took them to our P.E. class and wore them while we ran a mile. I thought it was interesting to discover that if we wore the micro bit on our ankle, it gave a more accurate reading of distance than if we wore it on our wrist.”

When learning the Scratch block-based coding system, Annabelle and a friend partnered in class to create an animated video. “In P.E. we always do warmups at the beginning of class so my friend and I picked burpees to demonstrate in our exercise video.”  Since District 65 students have P.E. for 30 minutes a day, there was an authentic connection between the coding exercise and students’ lives.

Micro bits are pocket-sized computers with built-in sensors, programmable buttons and Bluetooth capability. (Photo by Hillary Linden, Dawes School P.E. teacher)

Some commercial products that are smart fitness equipment and data-collecting devices are also available for the fifth grade testers to use and explore in P.E. class.

Both the Impossible Gameball and the SIQ Basketball use a connection to a smartphone or tablet to sense and respond in real time to game movements. The Impossible Gameball measures a player’s action and movements, and the ball coaches and encourages as it analyzes the digital data it’s collecting. In addition to some of the seven different games that can be played with an Impossible Gameball, it also comes with STEM problem-solving activities that relate to the physics of playing with a ball.

SIQ Basketball is another hit with students. It’s a smart basketball that tracks how a player handles the ball and shoots. It tracks the ball’s speed, the distance it travels, its spin rate and other metrics. Students discover as they shoot baskets in the school gym that the SIQ is the same weight and size as a traditional basketball and works well on a hard-surfaced court.

In addition to smart balls, students are introduced to MOOV Fitness Watches and are encouraged to take one home to explore with their parents. When synced to a smartphone, the watch acts as a personal fitness coach to runners, cyclists, swimmers or treadmill users.

Perry’s fifth graders learning coding this school year have been guinea pigs for a variety of interactive computer science experiences connected to real-life applications. By learning to code and then use smart devices to improve fitness and P.E. skills, the hope is that students will gain computer science knowledge, enjoy learning more and better understand the everyday value of math and science.

At the end of the school year the TIILT Lab and District 65 team will convene again to evaluate the co-curricular program at Dawes. What was learned may influence the districtwide assessment process that frequently makes changes to established curriculum.

It’s possible that next year, fifth graders throughout the district will be taking computer science to the gymnasium.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....

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