Wednesday, May 16, 2018

It's a Bird....It's a Plane...It's a Finch Robot at the Maker Xpo!

In recent years, there has been much hype around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math); hence the creation of "STEM classes" and "Maker Spaces." Too often, something that first starts off as innovative unfortunately has the potential to become a fad, because all of a sudden, anyone and everyone is participating in it. Because of this, it's very easy to lose sight of the "big picture" and forget WHY we adopted the initiative to begin with. Therefore, it's always important to set goals for what skills are to be accomplished through this task. Our SINAI Schools students had the pleasure of participating in this year's Maker XPO for the purpose of inclusion and was the only Special Needs school participating. When choosing an idea for a booth, I also wanted to make sure that it would provide them an experience through which they could strengthen their critical thinking skills as well as the opportunity to be immersed in an experience with STEM that would be relevant to them.

One of the key elements when teaching a STEM curriculum is making it relevant, concrete, and multi-sensory. This is even more important when presenting such concepts to students with special needs. Too often, people who are unfamiliar with students who have special needs believe that they either can't be taught, or they need to be spoon-fed the information as they are not able to learn the material themselves. How wrong they are. If the material is presented in a clear, relevant, concrete, multi-sensory, and exciting way, there's no reason at all that these students cannot reach their full potential.

When it came to selecting a booth for this year's Maker XPO, it was important for me to choose an activity that exhibited the qualities mentioned above as well as being one which my students would be able to teach themselves; I wanted them to have a sense of empowerment and be in control of their own learning. When one teaches him or herself the content, there is a greater sense of appreciation afterward because he or she knows the amount of effort and dedication that goes into learning the content.

GIVE a man a fish and you feed him for a day. TEACH him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime. — Italian proverb.

The choice for an activity was crystal clear. I decided to contact Birdbrain Technologies and ask if we could borrow their Finch Robots. So what are the Finch Robots you may ask? And why would it be something so intriguing for our students? As I mentioned beforehand, teaching a STEM curriculum can be very dry and abstract; it's all about the presentation. The content and skills need to be presented in a clear, direct, concrete, and relevant manner. In addition, many students with special needs have a hard time with flexibility; rather they are rigid and need to be in control of their own of their own learning environment. Using the Finch Robots to teach computer science programming accomplishes those tasks providing the user full control of his or her learning environment, an opportunity to strengthen higher order thinking skills, and last but not least, a multi-sensory learning experience. It's a win-win situation for everyone.


So, how does it work you ask? Finch Robots can be programmed through the languages of Scratch or Snap which are both very visually based and user-friendly. For purposes of this project, I chose to use Snap. When the Finch robot is connected via USB to the computer, the students use Snap to build a program or "script" by dragging and dropping blocks together. There are a variety of commands that one can choose from, including but not limited to: controls, motions, looks, and sounds. These controls enable the user full control of the program thereby making it very user-friendly.

While the students were at the Maker XPO, they were able to apply the skills that they learned and teach the program to participants with full confidence.

Mrs. Smith* and her daughters expressed how pleased they were that they came and saw Miriam* at the XPO today. She sent the following email:  "Just want to reiterate how rewarding it was for Miriam to participate in the XPO today. We too enjoyed seeing her in action. "

Mrs. Klein* texted about Sarah: "She had an amazing time, what an experience for her!!! Thank you!"

Sima Kelner, Director of SINAI @Maaynot Yeshiva High School for Girls expressed her enthusiasm as well, "The girls felt such pride, as did I, watching them lead, explain and educate. The project you picked was on target and you prepared the girls so well for their role both by teaching them how it worked as well as role-playing how to interact with those who came to the table. Karen* told me she wished we could have stayed longer!"

This is a testament that every child wants to learn and every child can learn. Given the right materials, environment, experience, and presentation, every child will be able to learn successfully thereby being able to reach his or her potential. How will you ensure that your students reach their potential the next time you present them with material that could otherwise be dry and abstract? What will you do to ensure that it's presented in an exciting and relevant manner so that they will connect with it? That's definitely something to think about.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.