Hello Robo! introduces learning machines in Head Start classrooms
On a sunny morning in mid-September, Carnegie Science Center Early Childhood Coordinator Wendy Brenneman leads a circle of preschoolers at Carmalt Elementary School. Staying cross-legged proves challenging in all of the excitement that Brenneman’s visit brings. A plastic see-through Hexbug scoots across the carpet and responds to a roadblock by changing direction, which it does as little hands meet his antennae. This Hexbug is slow, just a mechanical fzzt, fzzt, and the preschoolers’ reactions match his pace, but when Brenneman releases his hyper-speed cousin into the circle, the group goes nuts, batting after – and, in some cases, jumping away from, the robot – as they might an actual, albeit rather big, bug.
This morning is the second day of classroom visits for Hello Robo!, one of three recipients of a 2010 Super Spark grant from The Sprout Fund. During the classroom visits, representatives from the Carnegie Science Center arrive with plastic bins full of preschool-appropriate robotics: an interactive picture book, the Hexbugs, colorful plastic gears, and the next big hit, Bee-Bots. The kits are designed to be used throughout the school year in 131 Head Start classrooms around Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.
“Preschoolers are natural scientists,” Brenneman says. Above all else, they’re curious about everything, a litany of why, why, why that lends itself to days filled with discovery. Science need not be complicated, either. Baking cookies is science. Mixing paints is science. Watching clouds in the sky is science. And, as preschoolers become more cognizant of what their minds and bodies can and cannot do (science!), they are increasingly able to understand parallels between themselves and robots.
Classroom visits begin with such a discussion. We have joints; robots have gears. We can choose to follow a series of directions; robots are programmed to follow a series of directions. To prove the point, Brenneman herds the group into a line. They follow a series of plastic mats laid out on the floor: walk forward, walk sideways, jump, walk forward, walk forward, touch your toes. They mostly get the point, but, being preschoolers, some wander off course. Back in the circle, though, the big-eyed bumblebee follows all the directions programmed via buttons on his back. Brenneman asks the children what they would have to tell Bee-Bot to do to get from point A to point B on Bee-Bot’s plastic grid mat. He has to go forward twice. He needs to turn to the right. He needs to go forward again. Which he does with a precision that results in squeals from the audience. He did it!
Brenneman’s hope is that the early exposure to robotics technology could be the spark that will someday turn the preschool scientist into an adult scientist. As the school year goes on, students will have the opportunity to experience even more in the way of robotics during Family Science Nights at the Science Center, which will be filled with interactive table displays (not to mention the museum’s already extensive robot exhibits) and the chance to share all of the excitement and learning with their parents.
The connection between child, adult, and technology is paramount among all three Super Spark programs.
The Digital Discovery Room extends opportunities for exploration of nature
For the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Digital Discovery Room, another 2010 Super Spark award winner, children ages 3-8 are invited to expand upon what they’re already doing anyway: exploring nature. As many adults know, walking in the park with a child often means more stopping and looking than actual walking. Long lines of ants, squirrels racing up trees, flowers as they bloom, leaves as they fall – all of these take priority over putting one foot in front of the other. Together with their parents/caregivers, children can take pictures of what they see in those moments and upload them to the Digital Discovery Room, where the photos can be tagged and commented on by Museum staff, teen docents, and other nature explorers. This allows for children to learn about what they’re seeing without the sometimes impossible task of consulting insect and plant identification books. It also gives them the opportunity to talk about the experience of being in nature. What did it look like, feel like, smell like, sound like (though hopefully not taste like)?
The website for the Digital Discovery Room also features panoramic photos of the city’s parks and other green spaces taken by GigaPan from Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab. Children can use the highly detailed photographs to learn the names of flora and fauna as well as play “I Spy” games, which focus on pattern recognition. Additional games will grow from the picture collection, which will help carry the program through the long winter months, when outside play can be rather limited.
In addition to the CREATE Lab, Digital Discovery Room connects with the Children’s Library in the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as well as the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Exploring natural science isn’t just about playing in nature or learning to identify what’s happening in nature. Project coordinator Chelsey Pucka says that, in addition to learning and exploring, Digital Discovery Room hopes to foster a greater connection to the city’s parks and natural resources. When children know what’s in their green spaces, when they enjoy being in green spaces, they’ll be more likely to later protect those green spaces. She also hopes that the project will expand to include all age groups and green spaces outside of Pittsburgh.
Baby Promise commits to preparing young learners for their first day of school
Another Super Spark project that hopes to foster long-term results is the Kingsley Association’s Baby Promise, which guides under-served children (primarily in Pittsburgh’s East End) in multi-modal literacy and school preparedness. The program began with summer camp. One of the cornerstones of Baby Promise is parental/caretaker involvement, so each camp morning began with adults and children setting out the day’s goals, with adults writing and children illustrating. This allowed for better communication at the end of the day beyond “What did you do at camp today?” “I don’t know.”
Three times a week for the camp’s eight weeks, twenty-nine children ages 3-6 were given access to traditional books, computers, Android-based tablets, as well as other technologies by companies such as LeapFrog, all of which are monitored for both security and usage. Not surprisingly, the tablets fair best. Although children easily adapt to technology, the tactile engagement of tablet devices coincides with pre-kindergarten development.
The tablets are loaded with apps directed toward literacy – letter recognition, dexterity, cognition, and sound recognition – as well as apps centered on coloring and music, and contribute to a growing movement to encourage children and parents to use technology intentionally. The goals of Baby Promise align with the Spark-supported Ready Freddy Virtual Welcome to Kindergarten program and other kindergarten transition/readiness programs.
Kingsley’s former Assistant Director of Program Development, Maria Graziani, says that efforts to support literacy need to happen before teenagers are floundering and frustrated in high school or junior high. Even as early as elementary school, delayed development can have a lasting impact on a student’s education. A large part of the kindergarten transition/readiness programs is how integral a positive first day of kindergarten can be.
Denise Hill, site director of The Kingsley Association, also notes that as technology becomes increasingly important to education, lack of access to/comfort with technology can further the socioeconomic divide already present in the education system.
Prior to the start of the program, the Kingsley Association surveyed more than 130 families who use its services, seeing what technologies were present in the home and how they were used. Now that camp is over, the technology comes to the families during home visits, where parents/caretakers can learn how to guide children toward literacy. Adults are also made aware of the wealth of free and inexpensive early learner apps for the now-ubiquitous smartphones. Baby Promise also reaches children younger than the camp-targeted 3-6 range with the idea that traditional forms of learning can never start too soon, so why should technological learning be any different?
As Hill says, “They get so excited when they see what they can do with their hands.”