How My Afterschool Program is Delivering Hands-on Learning to Students’ Homes

From dropping off materials to Zoom lessons to disinfecting everything, it’s a logistical and pedagogical challenge, but teaching kids to collaborate creatively is worth it.

By Jane de Winter

At Big Learning, an afterschool program serving 2,500 students annually in more than 60 schools across Montgomery County, MD, we offer a variety of subjects, including an eight-week Science & Engineering track geared towards pre-K–5. Prior to the pandemic, we offered six or seven different robotics cohorts, totaling 50 to 65 students a session, in addition to our programs in pure science.

Of course, things have been different in our current distance learning reality, especially when it comes to teaching hands-on robotics. We can only support one cohort at a time, so our cap is 14 students. To take into account the logistics of Zoom, each meeting is 75 minutes instead of just an hour. We’ve also compressed the schedule, so our first cohort met 10 times over five weeks, with kids assigned challenges to work on between meetings. Bringing hands-on learning to our students’ homes has been a logistical challenge, but we think it’s worth it. Here’s how we’re continuing to pursue our mission of inspiring and encouraging creativity, persistence, communication, and collaboration.

Sending Robots Home

Since they can’t come to us, we went to them! For the students in the Science & Engineering class, we dropped everything they needed via contactless delivery to their homes. Our robotics program focuses on kids in kindergarten through 2nd grade and we didn’t want them to tear into their bags and scatter everything, so each student’s delivery included Ziploc bags labelled by class number with the materials they needed. Because the KIBO robot (pictured above) has platforms that students can decorate, we included a bag containing craft materials from cardboard tubes to googly eyes, feathers, and glue.

In total, we dropped off about $900 worth of equipment at each house. To make sure they had a full inventory of materials at the beginning and end of the five weeks, we put together a student journal that has descriptions and visuals of every single component of their projects.  To give parents and students an overview before we got started, we provided images of the robot including labels for the functional parts of the robot such as the on/off button, the light, the scanner, and where to unscrew the batteries. Our most important goal was figuring out how to make the logistics as easy as possible for parents so that they and their kids could focus on playful learning. To fully reach our student demographic, the introductory section of the journal was also translated into Spanish.

Taking Advantage of the Home Environment

In the classroom, when we teach the “Until” function of coding, we have kids make a tunnel of chairs and cover it with the tablecloth. Then we try to get them to think ahead of time: if they’ve told the robot to go forward until it’s light or until it’s dark, what will happen when it gets into the tunnel?

For the virtual cohort, we sent the tablecloth home, but we also gave families suggestions of building something more elaborate with their furniture or sofa cushions. The fact that they got to move the furniture around and put a tablecloth over it made it like building a fort, which of course kids love.

Another robotics activity that expanded in kids’ homes is the obstacle course. Pre-pandemic, we brought traffic cones to class, and the goal was to have KIBO weave in and out of the traffic cones and then return. So students had to measure how far apart the cones were and plan when the robot would turn right or left.  In the home environment, they can use their own toys and furniture as obstacles and get siblings and other family members involved.

Inspiring Collaboration and Communication

At the end of our standard in-person class, we have an open house where kids can show off what they’ve learned. Since that won’t be possible this year, we have encouraged our kids, if possible, to set their laptop on the floor during class so that they can be showing what the robot is doing right then and there.

Our K–2 students often want to just try one thing and then move on, but over the years I’ve noticed that when parents come to the open house, they’re very into sitting down and helping the children plan out a program for their robot to perform. To recreate this collaboration at home, we’ve encouraged parents to be involved so that their kids might do more pre-planning and more activities with their robot.

For example, another challenge we gave them is using KIBO’s Free Throw Extension Set, which acts like a catapult. We sent home plastic cups that they could use to build towers to knock down, along with a variety of rubber bands. Using data charts, kids tracked how they varied the number of rubber bands or the position of the lever and how that affected the distance and height that they launched a ping pong ball or pompom. We encouraged them not only to plan, but to record their data so they could share it with the rest of the class.

The first 15 minutes of each class were a sharing time. We encouraged kids to tell us in a sentence or two what they’d done since the last class. To help them learn the repeat coding function found on the wooden building blocks, we gave them Beanie Babies that they could put on the platform and then program the robot to do a little dance. During sharing time we asked, “What did you want your robot to do? How did you get that idea? Did the robot do what you wanted?” Other students could ask questions, too. This goes beyond a robotics concept. It’s more about starting early on encouraging kids to speak up in front of peers.

Gathering Goods and Giving Grace

Our first cohort just finished, and we’ve gone through the process of collecting the robots. We made appointments with families to pick them up, then put everything from each household in a trash bag and labelled it so we could individually inventory and then disinfect it with a UV lamp. After a thorough inventory we were pleased that only a few parameter cards were missing (and almost all of the very large rubber bands we use to keep the lid on the KIBO container—but that’s another story!)

At this point, we’re not contemplating charging people for anything they didn’t return, but if things were missing, we sent an image of the item and asked families to keep an eye out for it around the house. As with everything during this challenging time, we’re giving our families some grace. We definitely need our robots back. And yes, we’d like the Beanie Baby back, but if a child can’t live without it, they can keep it.

Parents and students really enjoyed having robots at home. In the words of one mother, “This class has been a joy for our whole family. My son does KIBO demonstrations not just for us, but for his grandparents over Zoom. It was a bright spot during this pandemic year. Thank you for offering it!”

Jane de Winter has taught at the University of Washington and The American University and worked as an economic consultant. Jane served on the board of Big Learning/MCCPTA-EPI from 2006-2013 before becoming Executive Director. Jane was involved in Montgomery County PTAs for 24 years, including as president of MCCPTA, the countywide PTA. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington and an A.B. in International Relations and Economics from Brown University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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