Kids discover a passion for STEM at Hour of Code make-a-thon

By: Suzanne Guillette
Students surprised themselves when they fell in love with engineering.
Lori Stahl-Van Brackle, Director of Instructional Technology for the New York City Department of Education, helps eighth-grader Briana Baskin construct a paper roller coaster, at the Hour of Code make-a-thon.

On a Saturday morning in mid-December, two eighth graders, Briana Baskin and Janiya Smalls, sat waiting unenthusiastically at Joseph C. Lanzetta School in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City. They, and other middle school students, were gathered to participate in a day-long make-a-thon.

The event was one of many across the country organized by Verizon Innovative Learning, to honor the Hour of Code, a global movement that introduces millions of students to coding.

That day, neither girl seemed thrilled to be there. It was early, it was cold outside. When Janiya was asked why she’d come, she pointed one of her thumbs in the direction of Briana and said unenthusiastically, “She made me.”

By the end of the day, they would surprise themselves by finding a new love for engineering and technology.

The friends, who live just a couple blocks from each other, listened with mild interest as co-organizer Lori Stahl-Van Brackle, Director of Instructional Technology for the New York City Department of Education, explained that the students would spend the day working in teams, with each team designing and building their own paper roller coaster and equip it with a sensor.

If they built their projects successfully, a marble would ride the roller coaster, set off the sensor and trigger an animation on a laptop that the kids would also design idesign in Scratch, a simple coding program.

Briana and Janiya followed two other students to the school’s cafeteria and named their team “The Papa Smurfs.” As they set out their supplies, Briana asked how long the event would last.

When Michelle Atkinson, their supervising teacher, answered her, Briana called out in disbelief, “What? We’re here until four??”

Then, as holiday carols rang through the cafeteria, something funny happened. The Papa Smurfs got really into their roller coaster. As the morning faded, so did their sluggishness.

Janiya Smalls leads Papa Smurfs in next steps in roller coaster creation. Photo credit: Michael LeBrecht.

Atkinson watched as they came up with an elaborate design. She cautioned the students, “The more you draw, the harder it will be to actually make.”

For the next few hours, they were mesmerized -- shaping, measuring, and cutting their unique roller coaster chutes. Briana and Janiya intently fastened loops to the structure. Across the room, their teammate, sixth-grader Emonie Edwards, was intently learning how to use Scratch to create the animation that would be triggered by the marble.

Joe Melendez, the Computer Science Education Manager for Manhattan at CS4All (Computer Science for All), taught students from each team how to use Scratch, how to make sensors from tin foil and paper clips, and how electrical circuitry worked. Under Melendez’s guidance, Emonie programmed the animation of a woman, a girl in a ballet costume, and a cat who said, “Hello!” followed by the sound of a drum.

As the kids worked, Melendez explained, “Scratch is a lot more powerful than it looks. It helps kids understand the logic and syntax behind programming. Not to mention, the students and teachers are having fun.”

Emonie was delighted by the program. “This is cool,” she said proudly as she worked on her design.

Emonie Edwards programs with Scratch. Photo credit: Michael LeBrecht.

Back at the Papa Smurfs work station, Briana and Janiya were dancing and singing as they put final touches on their roller coaster. Their group even worked through a designated pizza break. By now, the whole cafeteria was in the make-a-thon flow.  

Briana and Janiya also took a few breaks to send selfies to their friends. “Look what you’re missing!” they wrote.  The friends wrote back, wondering if it was too late for them to to by the school and join the coding event.

Co-organizer Lliana Villegas, the school’s instructional technology coach, was thrilled by the girls’ word-of-mouth marketing. “By sharing this with their friends, it helps to create a buzz around coding and STEM learning,” said Villegas.

Coding is a relatively new activity for Lanzetta students. Lanzetta is a new Verizon Innovative Learning school, an initiative of the Verizon Foundation, where each student and teacher is provided with a tablet and 24/7 data plan. Teachers are also equipped with professional development training in partnership with the nonprofit Digital Promise, so they are better able to integrate technology into the classroom.

Stahl-Van Brackle credited the open-ended, experimental approach as key to adoption of new technology. “When you put [the students] in the driver’s seat and let them know that there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design, they tend to push themselves. They really own it.”

Villegas hoped that projects like these would inspire students to experiment even more with maker projects.

“The end goal is to have student-directed technology projects and create opportunities where they can make decisions for themselves [on what they want to build],” Villegas said.

As the day came to a close, the teams presented their rollercoasters, testing them with a marble, to see if they triggered the Scratch animation. A teacher remarked to Emonie that she was good at coding. Emonie smiled as she corrected her: “I’m very good at it.”

The Papa Smurfs’ roller coaster qualified as a successful build. When the marble clicked the sensor, setting off Emonie’s Scratch design, Briana and Janiya jumped up and yelled with delight.

Would they come back? Both girls nodded their heads, huge smiles spreading across their faces.

A Saturday well-spent, indeed.

From left to right: Janiya Smalls, Briana Baskin and a friend pose after completing their roller coaster. Photo credit: Michael LeBrecht

About the author(s): 

Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.