Seaford Harbor students learn computer science with innovative Lego set


Katherine Black is using a children’s toy to teach her students the basics of computer coding, and to prepare them for the future.

Early this year, Black, 27, a third-grade teacher at Seaford Harbor Elementary, received a $500 grant from the Jovia Financial Credit Union to purchase a unique Lego kit for her students. The Lego Education SPIKE Essential Set creates lesson plans to help students develop critical thinking skills needed to solve complex problems in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, also known as STEAM.

Black explained that the set helps students develop a variety of skills.

“Students are working on kinesthetic skills by building with Legos,” she said, “and they’re able to transfer their knowledge of coding into those creations.”

The set contains 449 elements including bricks, motors and sensors. There’s also an app, which students use to create a basic code and apply it to a Lego set they build. The code allows the set to come to life.

In one scenario, students are tasked with creating a mechanism to move a toy boat. The app gives them instructions on how to build the Lego model, which includes a motor and a Bluetooth sensor. Then the students use drag-and-drop coding language on the app to signal the sensor to move the motor, which pushes the boat. The code is based on Scratch, a block-based visual programming language designed for children.

Scenarios range from building wagons with moving wheels to carnival rides, which Black said students were looking forward to.

“It’s been awesome,” she said. “It’s a kinesthetic opportunity for the kids to actually apply what they know.”

Third-grader Eva Taylor said she enjoys the lessons, and was surprised to see the Lego sets move. “I like it a lot,” she said. “I like the coding part, and making it move.”

Another student, Cillian Perry, said he likes how interactive the program is, and enjoys being able to choose which scenarios he wants to do.

“It’s not that difficult and it’s easy to code, because they give you instructions,” he said.

The technology is a far cry from Black’s generation, when fourth-grade computer science amounted to logging onto a computer with a username and password to play The Oregon Trail, an educational computer game developed in 1971. Today, Black said, second- and third-grade students are familiar with iPads and laptops, which makes it easier for them to understand coding.

Last summer, Black received a certificate in computer technology from Stony Brook University. She realized that coding and computer science are integrated into all of our lives and, she said, she wanted to be part of that conversation and teach her students skills that would benefit them in the future. Her generation grew up with technology, and understands how quickly it changes. As a teacher, she said, developing students’ imaginations and their ingenuity will help them excel when they graduate and enter the workforce.

“Our job is to prepare students for the now, but also the future, which is really hard,” she said. “So how do we prepare students for something that we don’t even know exists yet?”

Black said she has seen how coding is used in innovative industries that impact people all over the world, such as artificial intelligence and, more personally, health care. She has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 17, a diagnosis that surprised her.

“I wasn’t expecting this major change,” Black said. “You’re like, ‘I’m going to go to college and live my best life,’ and then suddenly you’re in the hospital, and you’re like, ‘Why is everything changing?”’

She now has a glucose-monitoring device on her arm that continuously monitors her blood sugar, and updates a small pump on her waist, which controls the amount of insulin she receives.

“If I’m going low, the pump stops giving me insulin, and it’s coded to do that,” Black said. “But if my blood sugar’s high, maybe I’m dehydrated or had too many carbs for one meal and I just didn’t realize — it releases a correction insulin without me doing anything.”

That’s one of the reasons, she said, she’s excited to learn coding with her students, and being a facilitator in the process as they get to know the technology. She added that there would be hiccups down the road as they learn about coding, but that’s OK.

“We’ll laugh about it,” Black said, “but there’s going to be a lot of good days.”