Leigh Frishman is a campus technology support specialist at Richard E. Cavazos Elementary School in the Killeen Independent School District in Texas.
When my son was in high school, he attended a STEM school that had a robotics program. After several years of volunteering at the school and participating in its culture, I came away from the experience wanting to do something to help get students involved with robotics, coding and just STEM in general, so I started my own team.
Giving up my house for eight years was a lot of fun, as was being able to give kids an outlet to gets hands-on with science. It was pretty amazing, and I still volunteer with FIRST programs.
In 2019, I took on a new role as Cavazos Elementary’s campus technology support specialist. I’m responsible for all of the technology that’s used on campus, ensuring that all of it is functioning, working properly, and updated. We’re 1:1 on iPads and laptops and we also have short-throw projectors in every classroom. We're running Osmo Robots for the younger children, utilize Spheros, and have pretty much every iPad coding application available on the market.
Ultimately, I’m trying to get our school access to as much technology as possible. After learning about the CoderZ online STEM learning environment and Cyber Robotics Coding Competition, I secured a 14-day trial that I know I could run in a lab with a small group of 5th graders. Eight students were selected to participate and met every day for about an hour during the students’ “Cheetah Pride” (our school’s mascot) enrichment time, and students also worked on the projects at home.
My students absolutely love the program. In fact, a lot of them don’t even want to go back to class; they would rather just stay and code. It’s great for both boys and girls, and we’re split pretty evenly between the two genders. Knowing that engineering tends to be a male-oriented profession, it’s great to see that one of our best students is a girl who recently completed 36 missions in three days flat.
When we were putting together our coding team and program, four foundational elements really pushed it forward:
- Principal backing. Our principal is very tech savvy and always game to try new programs. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why he brought me on board, and he’s been amazing in terms of supporting our coding and robotics program. For example, when I told him that we were probably going to need the nominal entry fee for the CRCC, he made sure that happened. And when I told him that we were thinking about doing the coding curriculum, he helped find ways to get that funded as well.
- Teacher and staff involvement. To make this work, you really need both teacher and staff involvement — it can't just be one person fueling the boat, driving the boat and building the boat. So far, the 5th grade teachers have been encouraging this initiative. Now, the other teachers are seeing this and also encouraging the program. Some of them aren’t even directly involved, but they’re throwing their support behind it. Our parent teacher organization has also gotten behind it. It's pretty amazing to have all of this patronage. It really makes a difference.
- Students who want to do it. You need to have the students who want to try it. This can be difficult because coding and robotics are new experiences for a lot of youngsters. Put simply, you can’t just say, “I want to start a robotics program” and then have it in place tomorrow. For the program to be sustainable, it has to incorporate both the school encouragement and the student participation.
The right program. You have to pick the program that fits best with your students and with your school. The program needs to be easy to administer, exciting for the kids to be a part of, and relevant to the next phase of their education. I really like the coding program we picked because it’s not one of those programs where everyone gets a trophy. I’ve gone through other programs where we worked really hard for six weeks and came home with nothing. It was disappointing, but it’s also how the world works.
Even if my students don’t stay in robotics or coding, they’re still learning troubleshooting and analytical skills — proficiencies that they wouldn’t be learning in a traditional setting.
They also learn how to assess an issue, identify what needs to be done, and then take the steps to get that done. That’s leadership at its core. And they are learning that if that wasn’t the right move to make, then they can go back and redo it until it’s right. That's a skill that I don't see a lot, even in adults.
At its core, the platform provides an avenue where students are allowed to ask for help, get the help they need, and then walk away with a sense of accomplishment. Finally, they’re also realizing the value of setting goals. For our team right now, that goal is to make it to the state finals.