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UW-Led Gaming, Robotics Program Helps Some Gillette Students Succeed

May 31, 2016
girl sitting at table with computer
Sage Valley Junior High School eighth-grader Kaylin Maria Chase works on scalable game design as part of a University of Wyoming-led program to help boost mathematics test scores and enhance students’ interest in college careers. (Jacqueline Leonard Photo)

With a large number of at-risk students, Jill Outka-Hill says a gaming and robotics program is helping to spark her students’ imagination and creative thinking skills that carry over into the classroom.

For the past two years, Rawhide Elementary School has been involved in a unique University of Wyoming program to boost mathematics scores and help students to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The program even interests students in college careers, says the project’s director.

Some schools in the Campbell County School District are among nearly 25 Wyoming school districts using the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. The National Science Foundation (NSF) supported the three-year, $1.2 million grant. The project is led by Jacqueline Leonard, a UW College of Education professor and UW Science and Mathematics Teaching Center director.

The “Visualization Basics: uGame-iCompute Project” was designed in 2013 to help teachers engage fifth- through ninth-graders in gaming and robotics to promote interest in STEM programs. Some school districts have participated in the program since year one of the three-year project, and nearly 900 students have participated during that time.

“This has been a way for us to engage our students in more computational thinking as well as interest them in taking more computer science courses,” says Kim Silbaugh, technology facilitator at Twin Spruce Junior High School, who has worked with approximately 70 seventh- through ninth-grade students the past two years.

The eight original schools participating were Arapahoe Middle School, Laramie Junior High School, Powell Middle School, University Park Elementary School (Casper), UW Lab School, Wheatland Middle School, Worland Middle School and Wyoming Indian Middle School. Since then, seven and nine school districts, respectively, have joined the program in years two and three, including Rawhide Elementary School and Twin Spruce. (Go here to see all the schools involved in the program: www.ugameicompute.com/)

“Robotics and game design were used as a hook to enhance children’s interest in STEM and STEM careers. We also were interested in developing computational thinking skills and the processes that we know students need to be successful in computer science and engineering,” Leonard says. “Finally, we wanted children to understand how mathematics, technology and communication are critical to 21st century careers.”

Leonard originally put together a multidisciplinary team from the UW colleges of Education, Engineering and Applied Science, and Arts and Sciences to research a question that has been part of her research agenda for several years: Can gaming and robotics be used to teach computational thinking skills to students in culturally sensitive ways?

Outka-Hill, Rawhide’s technology facilitator, supervised an after-school club each Tuesday and Thursday for students, using the UW-led project’s concepts. Last year, she had 10 students in the club, and this school year eight participated.

“I started the club discussing some of the world’s greatest inventors and their failures,” Outka-Hill says. “We talked about how failure isn't really failure unless you give up and quit trying. From there, I introduced gaming and programming.”

Introduced activities varied, using the gaming and robotics programs or a Lego kit. Outka-Hill always gave the students choices to choose from or sometimes they would develop their own ideas. For example, with the Lego kits, they came up with an idea that would alert them if someone came into their bedroom.

“Some made alarms, some made moving robots that ‘monitored’ the doorway, and others made more of a deterrent to enter. I let them do their own thinking,” she says. “My school has a large at-risk population with very few advanced or enrichment opportunities for those who need it. This was a great way for them to explore their own abilities and imaginations.”

During the multiphase project, UW team members first trained teachers to develop mathematical and scientific lessons that were culturally relevant to their students. Leonard and her supporters worked with the teachers to analyze the impact on students’ overall learning. The research team also worked with participants interested in becoming peer trainers to help extend the project’s reach after the grant period ended.

Program’s Positive Results

“The data reveal that using intact classrooms at the middle school level and elementary students during after-school programs reduced student attrition and ensured broader participation of girls and underrepresented minority students,” Leonard says.

Additionally, UW researchers have observed improved student development of computational thinking skills and problem-solving skills. Leonard says, early in the project, there was a learning curve that teachers and students had to overcome to learn the programming and software.

“Overall, students learned how to make their own games, which involved formulating problems, abstraction, use of algorithms, logical thinking, analyzing and debugging, and generalizing and transfer of knowledge,” Leonard says. “They also learned to use 21st century skills as they worked in teams to solve problems and created products for self-enjoyment and competition.”

Outka-Hill says the after-school club has helped the students become interested in the latest technology, especially robotics.

“I took a survey at the end, and students seemed to like the robotics best, but I don't think they could have done it without their prior knowledge,” she says. “The students love it and already are asking about next year. It is great for our district and is now spreading to others interested.”

Silbaugh adds, “I think it helps the students to start using computational thinking when solving problems. Most have really enjoyed it.”

Robotics teams compete at local competitions, and gaming teams have taken field trips to the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne. Teachers accepted into the program enrolled in continuing education courses, led after-school programs, and further developed instructional skills on how to incorporate cultural uniqueness into fun science and technology projects.

The NSF-sponsored grant has ended this semester, but Leonard says her research team has actually been granted a “no-cost extension,” meaning that the project will end during September 2017. Planning for the next phase of the program is underway, she adds.

“We intend to go to more school districts and work with both elementary and middle school students,” Leonard says. “It has been a pleasure working with teachers and students in Wyoming. The excitement and energy observed in the classrooms and after-school clubs were infectious. The students loved the program and learned a great deal.”

For more information about the program, visit the website at www.ugameicompute.com/ or contact Leonard at (307) 766-3776 or jleona12@uwyo.edu.


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