NORDONIA HILLS — Colin Whelan looked intently at the small screen, tapping on it as he verbally walked himself through a lesson in computer coding that would make the small robot talk.

"I remember he kept saying things for 20 seconds and that felt forever. I don’t want to do that for a minute," said the Rushwood Elementary School fourth grader, laughing a little as he recalled a previous time.

Colin was working at a robotics pod on a Friday afternoon, one of several work stations in the school’s hallways where students can learn coding by watching videos and programming a small robot to do various tasks. The coding is done by using "blocks" on the screen, color coded according to the type of instruction, which Colin said are analogous to lines of code.

"Great job again," said Principal Jacqueline O’Mara as she watched Colin work, noting that he completed the assignment using just five blocks.

While sitting at a pod in another corridor, third-grader Riley Werner and second-grader Evan Juhasz said they were looking forward to when they could start programming the robots.

"I’ve been doing coding since first grade," said Evan.

"He took it and ran and it was really exciting to see that," said O’Mara.

Riley talked about what she would like to program the robot to do, such as dance and fly.

"It’d be cool if he could talk," she said.

"He can talk," said O’Mara.

"My gosh, that’s so cool," whispered Riley.

The coding courses are part of an educational program that Rushwood is now in its second full year of piloting in the district. The district now anticipates bringing it to the other two K-4 schools, Ledgeview and Northfield elementary schools in Macedonia and Northfield Center respectively.

District officials say coding and robotics are exciting and students seem especially interested in it, but it goes beyond that.

"We’d been looking at opportunities for our kids for STEM and coding activities and when I was able to see what this entailed, that was intriguing," said Todd Stuart, district director of curriculum and instruction. "What I wasn’t aware of and became aware of after the fact that has been kind of like a bonus was the enrichment and intervention pieces that are involved with the program for all the core areas, science, social studies, ELA [English and language arts] and math."

The program was developed by Acellus, a Kansas City, Missouri-based nonprofit organization that specializes in developing educational programs. Rushwood began doing preliminary work, including training, during the 2017-18 school year, with students beginning to use it around May 2018. Stuart said Acellus provided the district with a 50 percent grant of $26,095 to help fund Rushwood’s first year, 2018-19. The grant was renewed for a second year, but then that grant was replaced with a 75 percent $68,465 grant for all three buildings.

Stuart said two teachers each from Northfield and Ledgeview are scheduled to go to Kansas City in November for training. They will then return and train other staff in their buildings.

"By later this winter, we will have follow up professional development by Acellus trainers, which will come in and work with our staff in the classroom to help with any concerns as they begin the implementation process," he said.

Includes different

subject areas

Angela Hartman, one of the Rushwood teachers who went through the training in Missouri, said that before students begin using it, they go through an online pre-assessment to determine where they are for each subject area.

"Whether they’re on grade level, whether they’re below grade level or above, it hits them at the right place for them for all their subjects," she said, adding that Acellus incorporates the standards for each state, including Ohio, in its courses.

Students then watch videos on a Chromebook, with each lesson including questions to test their comprehension. Teachers can monitor what the students are doing on their own laptops, including alerts to whether a student needs help. Teachers can also use a Smart Board to incorporate the lessons into their classes, said Hartman.

O’Mara said Acellus came to her attention at a time when school staff was trying to figure out how to help students whose needs in individual subject matters differed from child to child.

"I think one of the things we were looking at as a building leadership team a couple of years ago was what could we do to supplement what we are doing with our kids from an intervention level to enrichment level," she said.

Helps with problem solving

"Coding begins with preliminary lessons, then moves on to programming an actual small robot," said Hartman.

O’Mara said the coding has been so popular with the students that Rushwood will pilot a coding club for third and fourth graders in December and January and continue it if it is popular enough.

Colin was working on getting the robot to talk, as well as to light up depending on whether it was held right side up or upside down. He got to start programming at the end of his second-grade year.

"I just wanted to see how the robot works and everything," he said.

Evan and Riley have not gotten to the robot yet, but have been coding characters in various scenarios on their Chromebooks.

"There’s a character and you need to, like, program him to do something and then to go somewhere," he said. "If, for example, you need to pick up a crystal and go to a planet or something like that."

Riley, meanwhile, had some prior coding experience having taken a class in it outside of school.

"It kind of got my mindset on doing that because it felt, well, it’s going to allow me to learn new things about technology and I really love technology, it’s just so fascinating," she said.

Stuart said there have not been any discussions about bringing Acellus to the higher grades, but it does offer courses through high school and Rob Schrembeck, Lee Eaton Elementary School’s principal, has expressed interest in bringing it to the fifth and sixth graders there. Stuart, O’Mara and Hartman said the coding portion can not only give students an early boost towards eventual careers in technology, if that is what they want, but can help them become better problem solvers.

"Minimally, kids are going to have exposure to it," said O’Mara.

Evan said it has helped him.

"I really love just getting to explore different ways of problem solving," he said.

Colin said "coding has been fun."

"Just getting blocks together, it’s connecting things like a puzzle and I absolutely like, absolutely love puzzles," he said.

Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, or @JeffSaunders_RP.