Robin Corbeil is a technology and computer teacher at Litchfield Middle School in New Hampshire.
As the computer instructor for Litchfield Middle School, I’ve tried different ways of engaging my students in coding as well as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in general. Some tactics have been less successful than others.
For example, I tried Code.org, but my students lost interest after a day or two (the courses have probably changed since then). I also took on responsibility for the math club, but although we did do some competitions, it was a struggle to get students to even be associated with the club because it wasn’t considered "cool." We even tried turning it into a STEM club, but we just couldn’t increase membership.
Two years ago, I began managing student teams for robotics competitions. That engaged some students, but it took a lot of time, effort, energy, knowledge and direction. However, in 2018, our school took part in an online coding and robotics tournament, Cyber Robotics Coding Competition (CRCC). That event took less of my time, was easier to manage, and our school won second place in the state of New Hampshire. And I was able to pull it off with little more than two years’ experience in computer science under my belt.
One of the best things about CRCC is that it can easily accommodate teachers with no experience at all. Participants had to program virtual 3D robots to perform complex tasks and missions, but it didn’t require a ton of my time to get set up on the competition’s CoderZ Cyber Robotics Learning Environment. Also, it wasn’t something I had to take students through step-by-step. The missions were very intuitive, so they could work independently. They really didn’t rely on me for answers, direction or motivation.
The CRCC consisted of four components, the first of which was a professional development webinar for teachers and mentors. The second was a boot camp in which students and educators learned about coding and robotics in a virtual, highly scaffolded “sandbox.” After that, students participated in the qualifiers, competing individually to earn points for their schools. In the finals, which took place nearby at the University of New Hampshire, teams of students represented our school in an in-person event that was a lot of fun.
I incorporated CRCC into my 7th-grade computer class by letting students work on the competition’s missions for the first 15-20 minutes. The official objective was for every student to complete just the first 10 bootcamp missions, but quite a few completed the entire bootcamp and moved on to the more complex qualifier missions. It was a nice destresser for them because it wasn’t assessment based, and it wasn’t something they had to do with a partner.
I also made it clear they didn’t have to get things right the first time. I’d have the CRCC missions up on my screen, and I’d fail to complete a level, and my students would laugh at me. Or they’d see me get only half of a mission’s points because I wouldn’t be able to get all the commands to work. Just being that transparent helped the students thrive and kept them going.
CRCC differed from the Code.org courses in that the missions felt a little like video games, which really pulled in students. Students love gaming, and mine loved to see themselves ranked. We would keep the statewide leader board up on our screens to see where we ranked in comparison to other schools our size.
The CRCC also differed from our math club in that everybody could join in, but they could use aliases on the school-specific leader board so as to not be explicitly associated with the event (though all students who climbed the leader board’s rankings wanted to be known).
Despite this being something students could do by themselves, I’d see them conversing and collaborating. Sometimes, they’d come to me and say something like, “I’m stuck on mission 35. How do I get past that?” And I’d say, “I don’t know, I’d have to see it, but your classmate made it to mission 45.” And they would find that person and have a conservation about what they needed to do.
For me, the competition was not about learning a specific block code language, but rather about students gaining confidence in an area they may not necessarily think is within their capabilities. I saw that the most with the girls. I think they come into the computer class feeling unsure, and they end up being some of my strongest students. In fact, we received CRCC’s Grace Hopper Award for highest female participation.
I didn’t limit CRCC to just my students. I persuaded teachers in the other grade levels as well as our librarian, who teaches a computer literacy class, to let my students introduce theirs to the missions or introduce the competition themselves. It definitely worked. A girl in a lower grade, for example, took her Chromebook everywhere, even to the dentist’s office, so she could finish the missions.
While there was obviously plenty of intrinsic motivation, we did provide external motivators just to be sure. Our vice principal is a pretty good cook, so I offered her homemade treats to anyone who finished boot camp. At school lunches, our principal would acknowledge the students who were in the lead in each grade level. In addition, our robotics competitors were acknowledged alongside our sports teams at pep rallies.
Litchfield has a 1:1 program, but if your school does not, you can still create a fun, friendly setting for introducing students to CRCC — at an after-school coding party, for example. I don’t know that 100% of your students will go through the qualifiers, but it’s a great introduction that leaves the door open to exploring programming and computer science.