Local sixth-graders learn to code and create computer games

Courtesy of Corinne Machatzke
Kindergartners give the computer game Maze a try at the Los Altos School District CSTEM Showcase earlier this month as co-creator Sabina Davis looks on.

More than 500 sixth-graders from the seven Los Altos School District elementary schools participated in the second Los Altos School District CSTEM Showcase May 1.

Students presented computer games and interactive devices they developed with programs like Arduino, JavaScript and Processing on Khan Academy, MIT’s Scratch and LEGO’s WeDo.

Using coding skills learned in CSTEM classes, student teams exhibited their creative endeavors. CSTEM, a cross-curriculum program, integrates computer science, science, technology, engineering and math.

In the spirit of hands-on learning, community members and fellow students gathered to interact with the students’ programs. Dozens of featured projects, projected on a large screen, received special recognition. Each represented one of the three Cs of CSTEM: creativity, collaboration and computer science. Students described their projects’ formation and development to the large audience.

“How impressed I am with our students and their ability to take knowledge and apply it in an incredible variety of ways,” said Superintendent Jeff Baier.

Covington students Olivia Gonzales, Shelby Kingsley, Lauren Miller and Grant Dincel collaborated to create a motion-sensing frog out of LEGOs. The sixth-graders used a motor, tilt, motion sensors and Scratch code to create the LEGO WeDo project.

“If you wave your hand in front of the frog, its tongue will spin, which prompts the animated frog on the computer monitor to display one of several fun facts about frogs,” Olivia said. “We wanted to make something educational as well as fun and creative.”

“We wanted our project to be unique,” Shelby added.

Santa Rita students Jack King and Baylor Hoffmann presented the “Doganator,” an automatic dog-feeding system.

“I wanted to do something with Arduino and picked the auto dog-feeder,” Jack said. “It spins to reveal a new compartment with dog food every 24 hours. We foraged for the materials – we cut a toothbrush to hold up the top and used a plastic vegetable serving tray and lid and used clips to hold it together.”

Almond students Daniel Hu and Alex Minshull used Processing and JavaScript on Khan Academy to program an arcade that contains two original games: In the House and Quest of the Shake.

“We each designed and created a game for the arcade,” Daniel said. “It took us about three weeks to make.”

“Many took my ‘Do something you are passionate about/take risks’ to heart and tried projects that did not work out or could not be finished in time for the showcase,” said Sheena Vaidyanathan, CSTEM program lead. “I was surprised at the wide variety of projects and the number of students who were willing to show their work.”

Applying the skills

Alyssa Gallagher, the district’s director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships, said the program is unique in that includes every child.

“They are all being taught how to code and to apply these skills to an area of interest through their choice of project,” she said.

Gallagher said one of her favorite conversations from the event was with a student enrolled in a special day class who showed her a game the student created during CSTEM time.

“I had several conversations with parents sharing examples of students learning perseverance, tenacity and willingness to take more learning risks through the CSTEM projects,” she said. “Coding may be the targeted skill, but through Sheena’s instruction, students are learning many more life skills.”

The CSTEM curriculum includes a study of computer hardware and software and its use in multiple areas. Students create art and animations through code as well as design and build computer games and explore physical computing and robotics. Teamwork is a focus, and students use tools including Edmodo and Google sites/docs to share and collaborate online.

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