classroom teaching

Report from the Field: Week 4 (or so) with LEGO and JS Game Programming

I am now about 1 month into leading my after-school clubs on two subjects, first, Intro to LEGO Robotics, and second, 3D Game Programming in JavaScript. As they say, the best battle plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy (but that sounds so dramatic!). Anyway, here are my observations so far. BTW, the clubs run another month or so, at which point I am planning to offer a “Level 2”.

In general, 1 hour a week is really not enough time to do much, unfortunately. I believe the students are engaged and interested, but they don’t really have the opportunity to practice outside the club with the LEGO robots (unless they own their own), and my experience has been with the 10 kids or so in the JavaScript class, they are not really doing much beyond the club time. That having been said, the feedback from students and parents has been positive.

LEGO Robotics

The ten kids in the class range from 4th grade (1 student) to 8th grade (1 student), so most are in 5th and 6th grade (11-12 years old). The club has six robots, so I pair the students (which works well), and have 1 advanced student do his own thing with 1 robot.

I have been following the excellent lesson plans developed by CMU for LEGO. Each week, we show an introductory video, then I have the kids go off and program the robots. The school has the basic robot built, so kids don’t have to assemble anything, though occasionally we will need to connect a cable or move a sensor. I flirted with the idea of letting the kids roam on whichever part they wanted, but my limited experience has shown that it is best to have all the kids work on the same project for the club time. There are 1 or 2 kids who are more advanced/experienced than others, and I allow them to explore somewhat on their own, but with my support. It looks like all the kids will finish all the projects in the next 2-3 sessions, so my plan is to work on the Grand Challenge project as the final project in the club.

The kids are asking about building robots, but I tell them that there just isn’t enough time in the club to build anything. My thought is that as we get more advanced, beyond the initial projects, I will allow them to tweak their robots to accomplish more interesting goals. I’m nervous about giving them too much leeway especially regarding building, because then it could involve a lot of my individual time helping to sort out issues, when there are 3-4 other teams that could be waiting for me as well.

I haven’t sat down yet to plan out the robots/projects for Level 2, but that will be soon.

3D Game Programming in JavaScript

I am using Chris Strom’s excellent book, 3D Game Programming for Kids, as the core material, and you can see the page I made for the club here. The kids all have successfully created avatars, moved them about with the keyboard, and mostly created a field with trees. I am often impressed with the kids’ willingness to try things and patience when inevitable things occur like a browser freeze, or code not working. That having been said, it is kind of a free-for-all during the parts in which they are trying to get their code to work!

As you will see from my link above, I created code snippets for the kids to cut and paste into their editor.

Today I’m starting the 5th session, and I’m taking things in a different direction. While the kids have been able to get things working with cut-and-paste, I don’t think there is much comprehension overall. So now that they’ve reached a stage at which they’ve built something, I’m switching over to a lesson plan in which they can learn statements and expressions. I found the Crunchzilla site/lessons something I want to try with them, to keep them engaged and to learn about how to compose code. I did a pre-test with my youngest daughter (4th grade) to see if it kept her attention, and it did. My plan is to walk them through a few lessons and then let them loose, to see how far they get.

Next week, I plan to continue in the Strom book to the Solar System simulation, so rather than a lot of individual hands-on work, it will be a chance to review what they’ve accomplished and give them a better understanding about camera, lighting, and materials. Stay tuned!

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