Bringing Robots to Life: Red Cloud Students Discover the Excitement of Computer Science

posted April 6, 2016 

If you peer into one of Red Cloud’s middle school classrooms, you might see a robot darting across the floor—with its nose lighting up, or traveling back and forth through a complicated maze. Over the last several months, Red Cloud’s 5th through 8th graders have been learning to program and control their own robots. It’s all part of a new learning module designed to help empower students with new computer science skills, and explore exciting future career in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

"This was my first experience working with robots" says Zinzii, 8th grader. "One of my favorite activities with the robots was programming them to draw. We attached a marker to the back of its tale and we maded it go around and draw circles and shapes." Zinzii sees herself exploring computer programming more in the future.

First-year computer teacher and volunteer Jessye Stein was inspired to create the module based on her own love of computer science, which she first discovered while studying at Boston University.

“In college I took a computer science class to fulfill a math requirement and I just loved it. I was always interested in how technology could be used to express creativity or to shape policy, so I continued to take classes in computer programming, even after graduating,” said Jessye. “I thought it would be a fantastic learning opportunity for our students to learn some programming, and then actually see their skills in action by bringing a real robot to life.”

To start, Jessye developed a series of lessons to teach her students a programming language called Scratch, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by a group called the Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Scratch is designed for computer science education, but it can also be used to build games and create animation. Using the program, students programmed objects called “sprites” to come to life, walking, talking, and interacting with each other.  

“Students definitely recognized the challenges of programming, but they learned so much by coding and then having to debug by going back and fixing their mistakes,” explains Jessye. “In the end, they were really excited to see how their own coding could bring about changes and actions right there on the screen.”

But the real joy and discovery came during the second quarter of the learning module, when students had the chance to apply their skills to program their own robots. Jessye was able to bring in Finch robots designed by Birdbrain Technologies, and students used the Scratch programming language they learned during the first quarter to make the robots perform a whole range of new tasks, from lighting up and speaking to drawing different shapes with markers taped to their backs. Jessye designed assignments to align with each grade level involved—and then watched her students truly excel while also having fun.

“I’m so grateful that we were able to give them this exposure to computer science at such a young age, and help them imagine possible careers in these fields,” says Jessye. “In designing this project, it was really important to me to emphasize that computer science is something that everyone can pursue, that access to computer science—or really any other profession—isn’t limited by gender, or race, or any other factor. People tend to think that computer science will always be dominated by one demographic and I really wanted to break down that thinking.”

Next year Jessye hopes to expand on the programming module and perhaps even bring in robots that her students have to build themselves. But for now, she is simply enjoying how excited many of her students have become about pursuing future careers in science and engineering.

“I ran into the mother of one of my students the other day and she was explaining how her son now wants to go to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to study engineering and work with robots. I’ve had a number of students tell me they think this is something they could do with their lives. And that’s been just amazing to hear.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned Jessye studied at Boston College, that is incorrect. Jessye studied at Boston University. 

Students Discover Possibilities with Robots!


Meet Red Cloud Alumnus Ken Franks '08, Environmental Health Officer for Indian Health Services


Horatio Alger Scholarship Opens Doors to Red Cloud Seniors


Major Grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation Support Innovative Exhibition


Photos © 2016 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.