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Computer coding mixes with art; technology helping students in MASD expand their horizons

By Dan Miller


Posted 11/15/17

The American painter Jackson Pollock was known for using unorthodox items like sticks, hardened brushes and even basting syringes to create his abstract expressionist works of art.

The students in …

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Computer coding mixes with art; technology helping students in MASD expand their horizons


The American painter Jackson Pollock was known for using unorthodox items like sticks, hardened brushes and even basting syringes to create his abstract expressionist works of art.

The students in Liz Strite’s high school art class are borrowing a page from Pollock’s book, only their medium of choice is a robot the size and shape of a tennis ball.

It’s one of many ways that students in Middletown Area School District are using robotic devices provided by Penn State Harrisburg to create, using the language of computer programming known as “coding.”

The devices, known by the trade name Sphero, can be programmed by students using an application on an iPad or smartphone.

Using the app, students can write code to make the robot balls move in all kinds of ways — through obstacle courses that the students create, at sharp angles and varied speeds to bring to life concepts of trigonometry, and as in Strite’s class, to paint.

It’s obvious from watching that the students are having a lot of fun with the Spheros. But there’s a larger educational purpose at work — taking technology to the next level, said Christine E. Mostoller, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the school district.

“Currently, we have students use technology to access information and express/communicate ideas, but it is time to expand what they do with technology,” she told the Press & Journal in an email. “We now are at a point where we have a responsibility to teach students to use technology to create.”

“I describe this as students being able to read but not write. Our students are not truly fluent with technology until they are able to code.”

Careers in coding are projected to grow by 30 percent over just the next three years — twice the rate of most other career choices, Mostoller added.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that coding “should be your second language,” Strite said.

Earlier this year the school district was given 24 Spheros through a grant application led by Ashley Sabitsky, one of the district’s three English-as-a-Second-Language teachers.

Middletown was one of seven districts and schools that received Spheros through grants awarded by the Capital Area Institute for Science and Mathematics, which is based at Penn State Harrisburg and directed by Judith Witmer, who is an assistant professor of education.

The Middletown grant proposal was particularly appealing, Witmer told the Press & Journal in an email, “because they were interested in using this technology in more than one area and in several grade levels.”

Sabitsky said she didn’t know much about coding, but saw the devices as a way for her students to enhance their English skills, and at the same time teach other students how to use the Spheros.

“My kids are always the ones that have to be assisted or helped by other teachers or kids,” Sabitsky told the school board during a presentation on the Sphero project on Oct. 23. “This was an opportunity for them to be the strong independent kid, and be able to teach and show others.”

One of her ESL students who is benefitting from the Spheros is Jose Antonio Sanchez Gonzalez, a 12-year-old from the Dominican Republic who came to Middletown two years ago and who was introduced to the board by Sabitsky.

“When I came here I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t speak much English and I was very nervous,” Jose said, his family seated nearby. “This year in fifth grade we are learning about Spheros. They are cool and fun and it is fun to drive them and (see them) changing colors. It is cool going down to help and teach eighth-graders.”

Jose and the other ESL students in Sabitsky’s class built obstacle courses in the classroom and in school hallways, and programmed the Spheros to maneuver through them.

It didn’t take long to catch the attention of other teachers, who wanted to see how they could apply the Spheros in their classrooms.

“We had some other teachers see these things and say, ‘Can I just borrow a couple of them for a little bit?’ and the teachers who won the grant were very gracious in sharing them,” Mostoller said.

Now, “these things are all over the district,” Mostoller added, from elementary grades to the high school, where besides Strite’s art class teacher Phil Boehmer is using the Spheros with his coding elective students and in several advanced math classes.

Mostoller told the board that teachers have “far exceeded any expectations I had” regarding the extent to which they are using and applying the Spheros.

She also said that the project would not be possible if not for the school district’s decision to invest in providing all students with iPads, starting with middle school students in the 2013-14 school year.

“The iPads are what drive the Spheros and because we have invested heavily in the iPads it allows us to take those to use other types of technology. So we’re very grateful for the continued support of the board in that,” Mostoller said.

In Strite’s art class, junior Juliette Eckert used the app on her iPad to direct a Sphero to move in the pattern of a Star of David.

Then she and Strite went into a darkroom, where Strite using a camera mounted on a tripod kept the shutter open to record a time-lapse version of the Sphero tracing the pattern that Eckert had created.

Sophomore Arthur Dash preferred using the app on his smartphone to program a Sphero making a painting using the Blue Raider colors of blue and gold.

In exchange for getting the Spheros, Middletown and the other receiving school districts must each submit 12 detailed lesson plans for how the robotic balls are being used in the classroom. These plans will get put on the CAIMS website to be shared with other teachers.

The other schools being awarded a grant of the Spheros from CAIMS are Lower Dauphin, Central Dauphin, East Pennsboro, Newport and Halifax school districts, and the Carson Long Military Academy.

Middletown has “far exceeded expectations in their creativity and expansion in the use of basic coding in multiple grade levels and a wide range of courses,” said CAIMS director Witmer. “Thus, we have invited Middletown to our 25th Year Celebration on April 25, at which time they will demonstrate to potential additional corporate funders the potential for these engaging devices.”

CAIMS relies on funding through donations from local businesses and corporations, Witmer said. The 24 Spheros would have cost the Middletown district about $3,000, Witmer said.

Businesses and corporations interested in learning more about CAIMS can contact Witmer by email at jwitmer@aol.com or by phone at 717-566-3907.

To learn more about providing financial support to CAIMS, contact Abby Beswick in the Office of Alumni Relations and Development by email at asg5082@psu.edu or by phone at 717-948-6787.