The new face of professional development: teaching kids to program robots

03/05/2018 by Bob Keyes

Great Bay Community College offers middle and high school STEM educators advanced training in teaching coding skills in response to workforce need

Portsmouth, NH – Last Thursday and Friday, March 1st and 2nd,  Great Bay Community College (GBCC) and robotics company Parallax co-hosted a professional development training course for middle and high school educators to learn and implement BlocklyProp into their classrooms. BlocklyProp is a new way of using the Google Blockly visual programming language to teach coding skills by programming a robot.

The training is the latest example of public and private organizations finding creative solutions to address career training and enhance workforce development.

The program also offers teachers a tool to further encourage  interest in robotics and coding among middle and high school students that could potentially carry on to  their post-secondary education possibilities and career options.

“Research and interest from the teaching community prompted us to develop training in this specific technology. We had more than 45 teachers enrolled, 75 percent of those individuals were from New Hampshire and the rest joined us from Maine and Massachusetts,” said Mike Harrison, faculty member in the Information Systems Technology Department at GBCC. “This collaborative approach allows Great Bay Community College and the entire Community College System of New Hampshire to quickly respond to the changing face of education. It is our mission and privilege to help ensure New Hampshire is poised for continued growth and economic success.”

During the two-day course, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers from across the region built and programmed an educational ActivityBot and microcontroller, all while learning the best way to incorporate these new tools in their own classrooms. During the second day, after building their robots from a donated kit, teachers had a chance to test the results of their work.

Ralph Arabian a Tech Ed Teacher with Acton-Boxborough Regional High School coded his small robot so it could sense distance before it reacted and made a ninety- degree turn. Zach Denoncour, Technology Integrator with the Russell and Wentworth Elementary Schools coded his so it would respond via remote control.

For Denacour, learning to use the robot kit would enable him to complete what had become a particularly popular class project. “Last year, I had a very motivated group of 4th graders who made a blueprint for dinosaur “raptor-bot” from board game. The board game company actually challenged them to build their own. Since that time, they have been bugging me to get back to project but I’ve had to tell them we couldn’t do it without a robot base. This week I’ve been in touch with the company and now with the kit we can build it.”

“It’s neat to see some students engaged in something I didn’t expect. I’m hoping to get more of the robotics kits from grant money and see where they go with it.”

Through this new approach to teaching coding, student-teachers are able to write programs that display messages, remember values, make computations with math operators, and interact with external circuits. The training also addressed principles of electronics, including voltage, resistance, current, signal generation, and signal monitoring.

The training was provided at no cost by California-based Parallax, an education technology and robotics company that created BlocklyProp to add flexibility to teaching coding. This speeds skill acquisition, reduces frustration, and provides a STEM/STEAM learning experience where students can achieve success in a short class period but also develop bigger semester-long projects and designs.

Harrison contacted Parallax and they agreed to not only offer the training program at GBCC but also donate thirty-eight kits for the teachers to use each valued at $200.

“I felt that it was important to offer this” said Harrison. “It’s not something that the schools can generally afford and they usually have a long budget cycle.”

Harrison currently uses the product in two of his classes at Great Bay currently using this product and feels introducing it during earlier years is important. “Students need to see this ahead of time and understand that what they are playing with in high school is not a toy – it’s viable technology. By seeing this, they become prepared for new careers in the “internet of technology” – everything from smart appliances to (self-driving) vehicles.”

During the event, Harrison read a comment from Governor Chris Sununu. “An important step in ensuring students have the requisite skills to succeed in our 21st-century society is for our state’s educators to have access to top notch training opportunities,” said the Governor. “Innovative public-private partnerships play a critical role in the Granite State continuing to be a national leader in STEM education, and Parallax and Great Bay Community College should be commended for their commitment to our teachers and the future success of our students.”  New Hampshire Division of Economic Development Director and former president of GBCC Will Arvelo, also addressed the teachers commenting that they, along with programs like this were key to helping enable NH businesses to sustain and grow further enticing more employees to seek employment in the state.

To learn more about the upcoming BlocklyProp training, visit the event website. For more information about Information Systems Technology at GBCC, visit greatbay.edu or contact Mike Harrison at mharrison@ccsnh.edu. For more information about Parallax, visit parallax.com or contact Matt Matz at mmatz@parallax.com.

About Great Bay Community College

Great Bay Community College is a comprehensive postsecondary institution offering quality academic and professional and technical education in support of workforce development and lifelong learning. Great Bay Community College is part of the Community College System of New Hampshire, a public system of higher education consisting of seven colleges in Berlin, Claremont, Laconia, Concord, Manchester, Nashua, and Portsmouth.  The colleges offer Associate degrees and career training in technical, professional and general fields, including transfer pathways to baccalaureate degrees. The college’s second campus, the Advanced Technology & Academic Center is now open in Rochester offering academic courses and a degree program in Advanced Composites Manufacturing.   For more information on Great Bay Community College, visit www.greatbay.edu.