Day school students tackle coding, robots, 3D printing

Students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School spent their Friday afternoon programming robots to deliver a cargo load. Photo by Justin Katz
Students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School spent their Friday afternoon programming robots to deliver a cargo load.
Photo by Justin Katz

Laptops and Legos have taken the place of pencil and paper for students in one classroom at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. The subject of the class is robotics.

If programming a robot — in this case a robot built out of Legos — sounds complicated, it is. Every movement the machine makes must be represented using a source code. That code is written using one of many computer languages, each one with its own syntax and rules. Even a missing semicolon in the code can cause a robot to malfunction.

“Surprisingly enough, kids are pretty adaptable,” said Ginger Thornton, director of instructional technology at the school. “Trial and error allows them, once they understand how the program works, to discover things on their own.”

The school opened its robotics and technology lab in November. It accommodates about 18 students in each class. They are split into three groups: coding, robotics and 3D printing.

To code, students use a computer language called Coffee Script to design basic web applications. During a class last week, seventh and eighth grade students created an application called Turtle Tag, in which two sprites — resembling turtles — move across the screen until one manages to tag the other.

Students say they like the opportunities the tech lab offers them.

“We had a lot of opportunities this year to try new electives and I was really excited to try this out for the first time,” said Talia Kraner, an eighth grader. “This year was the first year I have done anything with coding. I really like it a lot.”

In the robotics class, students work in groups to assemble a robot with specially designed Legos that can use motors, light detectors and ultrasonic sensors. The goal of the day was to have each robot move “cargo.”

An application simplifies the programming process. Rather than type out the code that would tell the robot to turn right, for example, students drag and drop into the programming application an object containing the code that looks like a puzzle piece.

“It’s very intuitive. There are blocks that fit together so pieces fit together like a puzzle,” said teacher Andy Petusky. “You know if something [won’t work because the pieces] will refuse to fit together.”

“I didn’t think [a robotics class] was an option because I hadn’t heard about this kind of thing before. Now that I’ve heard about it, it’s really fun and I would do it again another year,” said seventh grader Lincoln Aftergood.

3D printing students create model objects with a computer program and then print them layer by layer with plastic fiber.

While the technology is not new, the cost of a 3D printer was prohibitive until 2010, when the average price dropped from $20,000 to $1,000.

Students design and print simple items like screws and washers. They also modify more complex items that can be downloaded to websites like Thingiverse, a file-sharing website for 3D printed models.

The school owns five 3D printers, which are available for student use during class and at clubs.

The complexity of any class varies depending on the grade level, but even the lower school is involved in the school’s push for science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.  Thornton said that the impetus for the technology and robotics lab at the upper school came from was an effort to include more STEM subjects at the lower school four years ago.

As a Jewish school, CESJDS created one more twist: a coding application compatible with Hebrew.

Thornton said: “The end result of the task is a coding task, but [sometimes] the language of instruction, and sometimes the language of the programming, is in Hebrew.”

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