Students up to code

Jefferson Elementary students learning coding from robots

The table of Paxton Fredin, Kyler Weidl, Elianna Garza, Della Thorson, and Blakely Thorson (L-R) talk amongst themselves as they work with Ozobots. This was only the second day these second graders had worked with the new tech, which STEM Teacher Amber McMullen received thanks to a $4,100 Innovation Grant from the school.

NEW ULM — Thanks to grant funding made possible by the New Ulm School District, Jefferson Elementary students are learning coding from robots.

The robots, called Ozobots, were applied for by first- through fourth-grade science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teacher Amber McMullen. The robots she had before were whittled down to only six, and half of them were broken. They also could not be computer-programmed, like these Ozobots do.

With the high prevalence of screens in today’s society, McMullen said the ability to utilize Ozobots without a screen is a big upside.

“That’s probably the most important thing because they’re on screens all day long,” she said. “They’re using them for school, home, entertainment. It’s their babysitter sometimes. Ozobots are a way to teach coding in a different way where they can understand the concept of it without having to look at a screen again.”

The Ozobots are small and spherical. They use sensors to follow drawn black lines. When the robots see combinations of green, blue, and/or red lines, they do a specific action associated with the color code. By doing so, and creating longer more sophisticated combinations, elementary-age students can learn basic coding.

Photo by Daniel Olson Keegan Giese and Sam Huries (L-R) walk up to Amber McMullen to receive their Ozobot and a sheet of paper. Each student was able to have their own Ozobot, though they have to stay in the classroom.

“It uses a lot of problem-solving skills,” McMullen said “It sets a whole other precedent for them because they’re using so many other senses. It’s also interdisciplinary. It pulls in so much of that problem solving they need to be able to do in [all areas of] STEM.”

Eventually, students can create their own codes and make the robots do what they want. This does require a computer to do, and the robot is limited in what it can do based on form factor and size.

McMullen said her students have been buzzing with excitement since they found out about the robots, especially since they each get their own. With the funding she received, McMullen was able to get 24 robots.

While the concept of robots in classrooms may seem futuristic, McMullen said they are now a very common teaching tool in several different areas.

“There’s lots of different learning types of robots that students use within schools,” she said. “In the last 10 years, things have shifted toward students learning problem solving, computer programming, and coding with robots. Especially with an emphasis on students who are of minorities or girls. It has been a lot of fun to watch them learn and grow.”

Elianna Garza, Blakely Thorson, and Blayke Buckentine (L-R) grab markers, make a black circle, and place their Ozobot in the middle to properly calibrate it. While the Ozobot can follow black lines, it can also read simple color patterns to speed up, slow down, or even do the moonwalk.

McMullen is thankful grants like this exist, to fund needs and costs when typical budgets may not cover them.

“There are certain things that cost a significant amount of money that might not be in the budget for the building or classroom,” she said. “Being able to access the means to create experiences in your classroom is very important. To have the opportunity to even ask for something that costs as much as the Ozobots means there’s always an opportunity for growth.”

There were two Innovation Grant recipients, with High School Social Studies Teacher Matthew Dennis also receiving a grant for new tech. Unfortunately, his upgrades will not arrive until spring.


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