Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017

STEM education made fun with Logo and Lego

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November 28, 2017

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STEM education  made fun with  Logo and Lego

‘What can we do with a computer?’ I asked in broken Odia.
‘Didi, Typing!’
‘Photos! Videos!’
‘Game!’ the students replied.
Au Kono (What else)?’ I persisted.
A few minutes of silence followed.
‘Didi, Paint?’ a feeble voice offered uncertainly.
‘Yes, correct’ I agreed, ‘Done! What else?’
There were only thoughtful expressions this time. This was going as expected. After all, ‘programming’ was something they hadn’t learnt yet.

My husband, Vijay and I were taking a career break and teaching at Gram Vikas Residential School for tribal children in a remote corner of Odisha. When we first arrived, the school had just received its annual 10th board exam results and although, all the students had passed, the subject wise results were, at best, average. The school was lagging behind in Science and Maths education which was observed in all the classes. We were planning to stay there for at least a year and help the school in whatever way we could. We were on the lookout for any project that we could take up.

Although a low-income school, it had a well-equipped computer lab since 2015 that was sponsored by Oracle. However, there was a shortage of skilled computer trainers and with no internet connection it was not possible to learn through videos. An initial assessment showed that the students knew quite a bit about computers which they had picked up from volunteers and other such resource persons who visit the school intermittently. They knew the names of different parts of a computer. They had picked up ‘Paint’ and were familiar with MS Office. They knew how to play videos and songs. Some of the young artists had even made their own computer books in Odia with illustrations that served as manuals for the new learners. However, that was about it! After MS office they had hit a road block. Moreover, the students now looked at computers as a source of instant gratification for their entertainment needs. We noticed that as soon as they switched on the machines, a majority of them would start seeing photos or videos. We had a challenge in front of us to wean them away from excessive video viewing and help them channelise their energy into something more creative as well as educative. We also needed educational tools that would help us overcome the language barrier.

We drew up a classwise plan and decided to introduce a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programme to seventh, eighth and ninth graders. As part of this programme, we took sessions on ‘Logo programming’ for seventh graders and ‘Lego mindstorms’ for eighth and ninth graders. The school had received computers and other equipment funded by Oracle and taken up by Gram Vikas, an NGO functioning in Odisha. So we managed to begin classes, inspite of power cuts and outages. It was difficult at first but soon things started falling in place.

Learning Logo

Logo, a programming language designed by Wally Feurzig, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon in 1967, is a great tool for computer education. Designed especially for young minds to learn the basics of programming and reasoning, it also works well as a medium to familiarise the students with concepts such as shapes, area, angles, intersection of lines, ratios and many such geometrical concepts.

Once the students were able to connect the commands to the graphics on the screen, they were hooked. After that, all we had to do was introduce a new command each time and layout tasks for them to finish. After just four weeks of regular classes, some of the students were able to code, the slightly complicated ‘Star Polygon’ shape completely on their own.
Logo programming is an excellent visual aid for students who find it difficult to learn Mathematical concepts in the conventional way. Once you show them what a command does, it becomes easy for them to use the commands to connect visualisation to coding. To cap it all, Logo software is open-source and is available for free download online along with tutorials and other such information sources. It is also a helpful aid in teaching STEM subjects when one is facing a language barrier as it involves a lot of visual demonstration.

Mastering Lego

Remember those interlocking building blocks that we used to play with when we were kids? There is an advanced version of it now. The Lego Mindstorms Robotics kit was created in 1999 by the famous Danish company, Lego in collaboration with MIT media lab. These kits not only have different building components but also come with motors which can be connected to a computer called ‘the brick’ and programmed to do certain tasks. All the learning material (basic as well as advanced) are available online for free and the kit itself comes with a manual with contains instructions on building various robots. Along with building blocks the kit also contains sensors such as gyro sensor, colour sensor, ultrasonic sensor and touch sensor. These sensors can be attached to the main frame and can be programmed to aid the robot in performing specialised tasks.

With the help of Lego, teaching computer science was a breeze. We used the latest version called the Lego Mindstorms EV3. The students instantly made the connection between the EV3 brick, the main body of the robot and the program created on the computer. The program itself is based on scratch programming and can be learnt with minimum assistance. Moreover, there are distributors such as Edutech (we took training from them), who conduct training for educators as well as students.

The most gripping aspect of Lego Mindstorms is that students can learn and work on it as a team. Typically, three students can work on a single kit. It was a great help to bring girls and boys together to work as a team which was a rare happening in this school as the atmosphere was quite conservative there. Working with sensors was also quite interesting for the students. The various sensors help in understanding important concepts in physics such as reflection of sound and light as well as give a working knowledge of electronics. Besides, each team felt a sense of pride on completion of their robot not to mention excitement on seeing their robots moving and performing tasks. The sparkling eyes and excited laughs were proof enough of the program’s success.

What we learnt…

Firstly, it is very important to know your students not just on an academic level but also on a personal level. Ninety eight percent of our students belong to tribal communities living in the remote mountains of Eastern Ghats. Many of them are first generation learners and are fighting all odds to get an education. They come from areas endemic to the deadly brain malaria and ridden with malnourishment. Thus, a residential school is a welcome facility where their health and nutritional needs are taken care of and they get an education which would have been impossible in their tiny hamlet inside a forest. We came to know all this by visiting their villages during the summer vacations. We even visited the students at their houses and were shocked to see their surroundings. We realised that the facilities at the school which would be considered mediocre by urban people, was a huge deal for them. Even though their lifestyle was sustainable, they had many superstitious beliefs and a high mortality rate due to diseases like malaria. They needed mainly good education and healthcare. Currently, the tribal children have to stay away from their parents in residential schools for receiving good quality education. However, there is a high dropout rate among such students.

Secondly, we realised that there are no bad students. All children have the same potential. What matters is the teaching method. In today’s world, there are several resources available for improving the existing teaching methods. Young learners prefer to learn through hands-on training. Digital education is one way to get students interested in core subjects such as Maths and Science. It also helps to keep them away from excessive video viewing and gaming.

Gram Vikas School is one of many such schools which still follow the conventional classroom teaching methods. Though classroom teaching too is essential for interactive learning it need not be the only method. Students who are used to rote learning might bring good marks but in the long run might lose out on good jobs. In our sessions, we made sure that the students understood basic concepts of Mathematics and Physics through the tasks they performed on Logo and Lego. We emphasised on cultivating the innate curiosity that children possess by encouraging them to ask questions and helping them to come up with the answers by themselves as far as possible. It is important to teach them through relating concepts to their day-to-day life. Considering the amount of resources available in digital education, it is time our country’s education system includes this like many western countries already have. It is also important to bring digital education to rural areas; otherwise the divide between urban and rural will keep increasing until our rural youth are left far behind their urban counterparts.

Although, it has been a couple of months since we ended our journey with Gram Vikas Residential School, the memories and experiences will always remain with us. It was a well spent sabbatical and we hope to learn more by helping many such schools and their students in the future. After all, learning never ends for both the student and the teacher.

Shruti I S has a Masters degree in Environmental Science from Pune University. Since then she has worked in many different fields ranging from atmospheric science to agriculture. She has completed the SBI Youth for India fellowship in rural development and has, since then, been interested in improving the education sector especially in rural areas. Currently, she is
freelancing as a science writer and occasionally travels around India seeking low-income schools that need help.

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