Robots, coding and in-depth problem solving scenarios are relatively common sights and sounds in upper grade levels, but first graders at Mark Twain Elementary School are right on their heels in the world of technology.

Michelle Ford’s first grade students are immersing themselves in the world of technology — they use iPads and basic coding techniques to operate robots of various sizes. Each student works hands-on with Ford, student teacher MacKenzie Cormier and fellow classmates to learn how to think critically, predict outcomes and master state-of-the-art technological products and processes. Thanks to KHQA’s “One Class at at Time” grant and a dedicated approach, Ford was able to bring discoveries she made at the Midwest Education Technology Community (METC) conference in St. Charles into her classroom.

Ford applied for the grant last spring, but she didn’t receive it. Her friend’s advice made all the difference the following fall — Ford received $1,000 to purchase robots that can perform a wide variety of tasks when prompted by code or prompts from one of the class’s four iPads.

And Ford said that businesses are increasingly seeking the skills the kids practice each day — from the coding that makes up website, video games and mobile applications to the critical thinking they use to come to a solution.

“This is what is coming,” she said. “This is what we need to get our kids ready for.”

Tomorrow’s technology takes on varied forms —some robots follow code constructed from pathways of colorful plastic bricks — while the Osmo device serves as a base for an iPad, using its built-in camera to create interactive games. The students’ favorite game pits them in a race against one another, as they arrange tiles with letters to spell the word of the image on the screen.

Mason Rapp and JaRae Favell-Sydnor played the Words game together, scrambling to place the correct letters under a special attachment atop the iPad. Mason said the real-life images captured his attention.

“I like it because sometimes the pictures look cool,” he said.

Jarae said the game has helped her sharpen her skills along the way, pointing out “I get to race somebody.”

“I’m learning that some letters are capital,” she said. “It’s helping me spell my words.”

Keya Collier and Alli Medina drew colorful paths on sheets of paper that ping pong ball-sized Ozobots Minis dutifully followed. Each color combination is an example of code, telling the little robot how fast to travel and if it will spin or perform other tricks along its route. Keya showed Ford different color combinations that make each code — blue, then black make the Ozobot move speedily; a red code slows it down. Keya agreed with Alli that it’s fun to “make your own path” — even by writing out your name.

Tiny, colorful Sphero Mini balls zipped along the floor, controlled with gestures on the iPad’s screen that encourage students to think about how their swipes and taps on the touchscreen related to the Sphero’s actions. Ryder Zimmerman also used facial expressions to control the Sphero, but he said he enjoyed the making the ball rapidly surge forward most of all.

“I like the slingshot,” he said with a smile.

Nearby, Chloe Smith clutched an iPad as she controlled Dash, a robot with a bright LED “eye” and the ability to play music with a xylophone and hurl balls through the air with a slingshot. Dash responded to the students’ voices, and he let out a bark before Smith made him pop a wheelie before zipping across the floor. Dash will also perform various tasks based on color combinations that form code.

“You can code him to do lots of things,” Ford said.

As they work with the robots, create code and play interactive games, the students regularly discover new aspects of their tech gear and how it works — finding solutions on their own and sharing knowledge as their teachers continue to learn more each day. And each students’ newfound tech prowess also leads to other vital skills, Ford said.

“It’s that deeper thinking — that critical thinking — that they need later in life,” she said.

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