Boise State’s Children’s Center introduces coding in the classroom

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At Boise State’s Children’s Center, a pre-kindergarten girl from China was quieter than her fellow classmates. To make her feel more included and improve her social skills, the children created a Chinese dragon costume for the Chinese New Year, according to Jahziel Maldonado, the lead teacher for the Children’s Center. 

The costume was not for a student, but for KIBO, a screen-free robotic device that teaches children about coding. Blueprints were made by the children and they used other tools in the classroom such as tape and fabric to make the costume for KIBO.

“Our hope was that KIBO could become a tool that she can use to find commonality and a way for her to express herself,” said Heather Lee, the director of the Children’s Center. “And not only did it become that, she started talking about her culture, she started talking about her language, her parents, her customs. And then we found her to become a peer mentor for some of the younger children in the classroom.” 

In 2015, the Idaho legislature passed a house bill that would create a Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) Action Center. The Idaho STEM Action Center works to promote opportunities for educators, students, communities and industry using STEM and computer science to build a strong workforce. 

KIBO was first incorporated in the classroom during January and May of this year. Erica Compton is the program manager for Idaho STEM Action Center and works to integrate STEM for all ages in the state of Idaho.

“We created early STEM professional development workshops and in one of those is where the KIBO robotics were included as part of the kit that educators received to take back and use in their learning organization,” Compton said.

KinderLab Robotics created KIBO and was co-founded by Marina Umaschi Bers and her team studying new technologies at Tufts University.

Curriculum and trainings are administered by KinderLabs to teachers regarding KIBO, especially to those that may be unfamiliar with coding and engineering, according to Jason Innes, the manager of training and curriculum development. 

“We make it easier for classroom teachers to integrate this kind of activity when they may not see themselves teaching a programming class,” Innes said.

KIBO uses a scanner to read wooden blocks with a barcode embedded in them to make the robot move a specific way. The blocks can be placed in any order the children choose, as long as a start block is placed at the beginning and a stop block is placed at the end. 

Young children are digital natives, meaning they were born into a world with mass amounts of technology, whereas adults are technology immigrants and are still learning about it.

“We believe that children, when they are naturally inquisitive, they are found to ask 200 to 400 questions a day at the preschool level,” Lee said. “And so it is a very natural time to introduce something like that, that is just another tool to express themselves and to learn about the world, as with a pencil, or a marker, or a pair of scissors would be.”

Most people think of a child with an iPad or iPhone in front of them when they interact with technology, but KIBO allows for more than that. One of the beliefs of KinderLab and Idaho STEM Action Center is cradle to career, so that children will continue to learn their entire life, according to Lee.

“(They use) hands on experience to show they are working in teams, they are collaborating with each other. So (they) build a relationship with the (other) children to also create this community of learning in the classroom and a welcoming environment for all of them,” Maldonado said.

There are 162 children in the program, but around 14 students interact with KIBO at a time. Research done by KinderLab found that the part of the brain that handles literacy functions also engages during coding with KIBO. 

“Early exposure allows them to have the competence to go forward to figure out whether they truly want to go into those fields or not. STEM [is]not for everyone and yet, those opportunities should be open for everyone,” Lee said.

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