MERIDEN — Yusuf Sofiane wanted to make his robot, a little round object that moved on wheels, do a 180-degree turn.
So using black, blue and red colored markers, he drew out a path. The robot, an Ozobot, would follow the black line Sofiane drew. He drew a set of instructions, through a blue-red-blue stretch in the Ozobot’s path.
“It means it would take a turn,” Sofiane, 10, explained. He was one of more than a dozen fourth and fifth grade students at Nathan Hale Elementary School who were engaged in computer coding when Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz paid their class, led by technology instructor Kimberly Burns, a visit Tuesday morning.
Bysiewicz observed as Sofiane and his classmates marked paths for their Ozobots to take through Hartford and Meriden — going past famous structures, including the State House and Dunkin Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats, past the Connecticut Science Center, and back to Meriden — at Nathan Hale.
The Ozobots had different photos attached — one of Bysiewicz, of School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, as they moved through the paths students had etched out for them.
Nearby, other students were seated in front of computers engaged in other coding projects — using colors, actions and other prompts, they were learning some of the basic tenets of coding.
Bysiewicz crouched down and interacted with students as they completed their tasks, asking questions along the way.
Afterwards, Bysiewicz would emphasize the importance of students learning computer science and other science, technology, engineering and math fields. The grouping is commonly referred to by educators and policymakers as STEM.
Bysiewicz chairs the state Governor’s Council on Women and Girls, which was formed in early 2019. The purpose of that group is to introduce students in grades kindergarten through 12 to STEM related fields and careers in which women have traditionally been underrepresented — like computer science. Promoting STEM
The lieutenant governor’s visit to Nathan Hale came during Computer Science Education Week. Bysiewicz and other leaders hope to increase the number of students participating in foundational computer science courses.
Bysiewicz noted that 89% of the state’s high school students attend schools that offer computer science as an elective course. However, only 5.3% of high school students actually enroll in foundational classes in the subject.
Bysiewicz was encouraged by what she saw.
“It was just so amazing to see how engaged and excited students were with their individual projects,” she said. “… groups sitting together, collaborating, making things, helping each other solve problems.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz talks with student Darris LaFogg, 9, who works in a technology lab at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Meriden on Tuesday. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
“I know that some of our state’s future innovators are in that room,” Bysiewicz said. Those skills will serve students well when they are adults and ready to enter the state’s workforce. Bysiewicz noted that most of the state’s employers seek candidates who have STEM-related skillsets.
“To learn more about computer science in elementary, middle school or in high school gives students the opportunity to become familiar with the skills that are not only growing” but are also required, Bysiewicz said. Gender equity
Bysiewicz emphasized STEM fields represent a strong network of job opportunities that offer financial security.
“In my role as chair of the Council of the Women and Girls, I am out there every day encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM fields, because sadly, women hold 25% of the STEM jobs,” Bysiewicz said. “And the STEM jobs that we have in our state are among the highest paying. So if we want to decrease the pay equity gap, then we do it by encouraging more women to go into STEM fields.”
Bysiewicz described the introduction of students to STEM fields early on in their education as a “critical moment,” especially for young girls.
The number of girls and boys in this classroom was split pretty evenly, so it appeared those efforts to improve gender representation had a solid start. Tech integration
Susan Moore, supervisor of blended learning for the Meriden Public Schools, explained the school district has engaged in a concerted effort to broaden students’ technology education, including computer science, in recent years.
“Technology really is part of every single classroom every day,” Moore said. “We are fortunate in the district to have technology integration specialists to work with teachers and students to make sure the technology we’re using in the classroom is meaningful.”
To keep students’ interest in specific areas, like coding and computer science, high, district educators like Burns, offer a variety of activities.
Burns described the importance of incorporating other subjects into the technology instruction. So this week’s Ozobot exercise included the state capital and other significant places in Connecticut, to coincide with Bysiewicz’s visit. Other weeks, Burns may blend the activity with math and reading lessons.
“Things that we’ve done in the past, like with reading, if they’ve been working on a type of a story, you’re able to incorporate places, as if they are walking through that story,” Burns said, using “Little Red Riding Hood” as an example. Or it could be used to augment multiplication lessons. Students would need to navigate their robots to the correct answers.
“You can incorporate it into the curriculum in many ways,” Burns said. Future innovators
Nine-year-old Sam Parcella wore headphones and was fully immersed in a program called “Dance Party.” Using a combination of characters, songs, colors, he would program a unique figure programmed to dance to the song he chose.
“I like that there are a lot of different options,” Parcella said. At that particular moment, he had configured a green cat character that would dance to a clip from the OutKast song “Hey Ya.”
Ten-year-old Ariana Rolle, meanwhle, was among the students coding paths for the Ozobots, navigating through the Capital. She enjoyed testing the code, seeing it in action — to see how the device followed the path she had created, including making left or right turns, by the State House and the Conncticut Science Center.
Norman Sondheimer, an advisor for the Connecticut chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association, was thrilled by the activities he saw Tuesday. He was gearing up for next month’s coding challenge. The association is looking for students at all levels of coding expertise, including those students, from those who are new to the field and those who have a firm grasp and want to see how their codes fare. Cultivating that interest is the challenge’s main goal.
Sondheimer said there’s a chance the next technology innovator was sitting in the classroom before him.
“There really is a chance these kids can help us grow the entire economy,” he said.