Robots, eyeballs, bridges, computerized puppets

Boze program brings STEAM to summertime

7/24/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​Some children play with Lego blocks. Katie Savig’s summer robotics class at Boze Elementary School one-ups Legos: The plastic blocks at Boze, when snapped together in the correct order, form electrical circuits.

“I’m trying to build something to make this fly up in the air,” said one little girl, holding up a small plastic propeller.
The youngsters want to build a robot that will pollinate plants. But first they’re learning how circuits work, and how to design and build simple electronic machines to do specific tasks.

Like make a plastic propeller fly.

“Ouch!” comes a not-entirely-displeased voice across the class, set up in half of the Boze gym, followed by giggles. At another table, a group manages to get the circuit together and launch their propeller. The little electric motor that spins the propeller up to speed continues to whiz away after the launch, and another girl can’t resist putting her finger on the spindle. “Aw, that doesn’t hurt.”

“Why are we making robotic bees?” Stavig asks.

“Because the bees are dying,” comes the chorus in response.

two students navigate mindcraft world on laptop
​Noe Ortiz-Aparicio looks on as Kailee Alvarez navigates around a Minecraft "world.".
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Altogether, 44 students signed up for the Summer Learning Program at Boze this year, more than expected, according to Technology Access Foundation instructional coach Shoshanna Cohen, who works with the teachers at Boze.

“We had a budget for 40, but too many signed up,” Cohen said. The district Title I office “was really generous and gave us enough for the extra kids, so we didn’t have to turn anyone down.”

The students range from third- to fifth-graders, and five Boze teachers signed up to teach four distinct classes.

“We were looking for something new and innovative in a summer program—not just remedial reading, or math,” Cohen said. “Something fun and exciting that would motivate the kids and get them into learning even though it was summertime. So the goal is not just preventing the ‘summer slide,’ it’s more—it’s getting them excited about learning, and start thinking about what they can innovate and create on their own.”

A few feet away in a curtained-off area behind the Boze auditorium stage, teachers Danielle Pansevicius and Linda James-Hargis circulate around tables covered with laptops and surrounded by more students. A projector shows a wide-angle view of the action: These students are searching a created computer “world,” designed with the gaming/construction software called Minecraft, for information kiosks, represented by blocky blue structures that sort of resemble automatic teller machines. Each kiosk, when triggered, displays educational information—videos, websites, text files. Each student has created an “avatar” for this world, an onscreen representation of themselves, and the view on each individual laptop shows what the avatar would see in the computer world.

Meantime, the wide-angle shot projected on the wall hilariously shows the blocky, cartoonish avatars sprinting around from kiosk to kiosk at top speed, except for a few more savvy youngsters who have figured out how to make their avatars fly. These tend to appear at the top of the screen, looking as if they’re running in mid-air.

This class will eventually teach even younger students using “worlds” they’ve designed in Minecraft, as well as designing their own Minecraft “puppets” to act as guides and teachers in their created world. The information they’re accessing covers everything from Minecraft basics to the history of puppetry. 

“It’s been great,” Cohen said. “It’s very much student choice and voice for the projects. So teachers have designed the general theme of the class. We let the kids choose a second and third choice, so it’s sort of like college. Teachers give the students the theme of the class, and give the kids resources, and then let the kids go with it.

“So for instance in the Minecraft class, the students are building their own worlds, but building them with the specific goal of using them to teach kindergarten through second-grade lessons based on the Common Core state standards. So the worlds have tasks in them related directly to the standards. Next year these kids will be teaching the K through two students these lessons. Building these worlds has the kids excited, and they don’t even realize they’re learning while they do it,” Cohen said.

Elsewhere at Boze, a group of students studies how the eyes of various animals and insects work, beginning with the very basic characteristics of light and colors. Another group works on designing and building bridges, including using plastic syringes full of water as hydraulic pumps to raise and lower a bridge span “so boats can go underneath,” in the words of one 10-year-old.

“Tons of engineering, tons of technology, massive amounts of math and science through the lessons they’re developing,” Cohen said. “And then the art component as well. So it’s really cool.”