Hamilton teacher has her Grade 3 students up to code on minicomputers

·2 min read

Most kids are introduced to probability math by rolling dice over and over on a desk or floor.

But Maureen Richardson’s Grade 3 class will learn the likelihood of rolling snake eyes (hint: it’s low) by programming a small hand-held device to display numbers on a screen at the push of a button.

“Instead of just going and getting a bag of dice ... we can code a dice or coin flipper,” she said. “They’re learning code, but we’re using it as a tool to help us with our math.”

Richardson, a teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Elementary School in Waterdown, is using code to teach her Grade 3 class everything from probability and temperature to spelling to social-emotional skills.

Thanks to Microsoft and Fair Chance Learning, a Canadian company working to bring technology to classrooms, Richardson has a class set of micro:bits, which are minicomputers “the size of a child’s palm” — about $25 each — that she uses to teach kids the basics of coding.

“When they get a device in front of them, their eyes light up,” she said. “They’re excited about it.”

Richardson uses block coding, a language in which Lego-like bricks are connected to create commands.

“You just sort of click and drag the code that you need over into the workspace and that’s how they write their code,” she said. “It’s very simple.”

In the fall, Richardson introduced the class to coding through a simple activity: programing the micro:bit to “write” letters in the device’s 25 LED lights.

“When you start the program, it will then spell their name based on the blocks they put it in the order,” she said. “It’s just teaching them that each of these little blocks connect together.”

Once they mastered the device’s functions, the students could practise spelling other words using the device. Other activities include programming the micro:bit, which has a temperature sensor, to act as a thermometer, coding happy — or sad — faces to express emotion and using the built-in accelerometer as a step-counter to measure physical activity.

“We know that’s what’s ahead for them, that coding will be part of their jobs in the future,” said Richardson, who has two daughters in post-secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

“Knowing what their career path is like, I thought, ‘You might as well start introducing them now.’”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator