JMA robotics

John Milledge fifth-graders Izzy Santarone (left) and Morgan Farrelly (right) work on telling their classroom robot Dash to play the xylophone in this photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools. JMA was chosen as one of the few schools around the world to beta test a virtual version of Dash that will be made available to the public at the start of the 2020-21 academic year. 

A very timely beta test rollout has allowed John Milledge Academy fifth-grade students to take a fun element of their classroom home with them throughout this period of unexpected distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students in Tammy Fietkau’s class grew well-acquainted with a little robot named Dash throughout the school year. Through different iPad and tablet apps, students can tell Dash what to do through the magic of computer coding. His tasks range from simply moving in different directions to shooting a ball through a makeshift hoop and even playing the xylophone. 

Wonder Workshop, the company that makes Dash and other classroom coding robots, has created a new way for schoolchildren to engage with its product — a virtual Dash set in a virtual world. This version is not available to schools until the start of the 2020-21 academic year, but after attending a virtual conference with Wonder Workshop, Fietkau’s classroom was one of only a few selected around the world to beta test the new product. So, although her students have been away from school, they still get to spend time with their good friend Dash thanks to technology. Just like the physical version, they can still code the virtual robot and see if his actions match what they want him to do. He can speak, change color, bulldoze, as well as pick up and move objects.

Fietkau, who teaches fifth-grade math and science at JMA, said Dash, both the physical and virtual versions, exposes her kids to computer coding at an early age while also helping them in another very important area.

“Problem solving,” she said. “That’s something they’re going to need forever, and I think it helps them see things differently. One of the problems a lot of children have is how to do a word problem in math. Something like this helps them look at a process and figure out that if one way doesn’t work to try another.”

Fietkau is finishing up her third year at John Milledge and taught at other schools before that, but she only recently began bringing robotics into her classroom. Her desire to bring the hands-on activity to her students was met with open arms by school administrators, so she applied for a grant to get the necessary tools. Tri-County EMC’s Bright Ideas grant program was the perfect fit, and soon after applying Fietkau’s classroom was outfitted with a Dash robot along with the technology needed to program it. 

“They are the ones that made this possible,” Fietkau said of Tri-County EMC.

While the timing for getting access to virtual Dash could not have been more perfect, Fietkau said there will still be applications for the virtual version once her students return to the classroom. 

“What I want students to do at the start of the year is use it as a planning stage,” she said. “You can actually write the code here and do it step by step to see if it works the way they want it to.”

Kids will be able to beta test their code virtually and once they have the details sorted out can apply that to the physical robot to watch him work right before their eyes. 

The fifth-grade teacher added that there are still plenty of other fun things that can be done with Dash and her other classroom robots, so she is looking to write more grants in the future to add even more to her students’ robotics learning experiences. 

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