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NEW YORK — When school started this fall at DeWitt Clinton High School a graphing calculator had to substitute for robots in a ninth-grade robotics class.

The teacher, Howard A. Stern, was eager to teach the new robotics class for freshmen, but he started the year without a curriculum or the equipment he requested.

He had to craft a solution with what he had on hand. As a math teacher, he had graphing calculators and materials. He used them to craft a lesson that taught students how to write code for a simple math game. It would introduce them to algorithmic thinking.

Teacher Howard A. Stern works with a student who is programming a graphing calculator to perform a simple math game. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)
Teacher Howard A. Stern works with a student who is programming a graphing calculator to perform a simple math game. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

With more than 2,700 students, DeWitt High is among the growing number of public schools that offer classes, like robotics, that give students an early introduction to engineering and computer science.

Stern did not give up on the robots. He wrote a proposal seeking outside donations of $23,600 for equipment and a curriculum, posting it on a website where educators can solicit donations from the public to pay for what is not included in the school budget.

Not long after Stern’s request appeared online, the school found the money for a robot kit and a curriculum. But by the time the kit arrived, the school year was already underway.

“I had to find stuff to make it work,” he said.

Related: After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

Many of the high-tech tools in Stern’s classroom are there because he independently sought grants to pay for them. Some requests were simple: 80 boxes of colored pencils for drawing on graph paper. Others brought the wow-factor: a 3-D printer that creates visual versions of abstract geometric shapes, such as a dodecahedron.

Stern’s smaller requests are more typical of the norm on, the site he used to seek help. His $23,600 robotics request was among largest-ticket requests made by teachers, according to an analysis by The Hechinger Report. (Earlier this year, publicly released information such as the amount, location and fulfillment status of requests made on the website.)

Stern’s Texas Instruments TI-84 graphing calculator is normally used by his upper-level math students. But the workhorse calculators can be programmed to perform math games. So, Stern used them to teach students to write a simple code. This gave students an entry into algorithms and how to think like a coder or an engineer. Later in the year, then the robot project is underway, the students will learn more about this by building and programming a robot.

Related: How computer coding can increase engagement, provide a purpose for learning?

One recent day, Stern worked with his ninth-graders to write a program on the graphing calculator. About half the students in the class have special education needs. Others were able to quickly learn the concepts. Stern worked with some of the struggling students one-on-one during the period. He slid into an empty desk near a student who needed help. They worked together for a while.

“Do you have the example I gave you?” Stern asked.

The student pulled a dog-eared paper out of his backpack. He reviewed it. Brow furrowed, he leaned over his calculator and kept trying to figure out the next step. A few minutes later, he smiled. Success.

Related: Classroom technology can make learning more dangerous, and that’s a good thing

Teaching students how to code has increased in popularity as national leaders have cited a need for students to learn these kinds of skills. For instance, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his chief of schools announced a new computer science course.

“In three years time, you can’t graduate from high school in the city of Chicago if you didn’t take code writing and computer science,” Emanuel said during a technology event, according to CNNMoney. “We’re making it mandatory.”

The graphing calculator allows Stern to teach the fundamentals of thinking like a computer programmer, but it has its drawbacks. Designed for high school students in upper-level math classes, it is not as captivating as a robot. The no-nonsense interface of the calculator is analog; these students were in first grade when the iPhone debuted.

Stern believes building a robot will capture the imagination of his students. That interest creates the starting line. The tough part — the teaching — is what will elevate the class beyond the buzz of signing up for a trendy class.

The robot kit in Stern’s classroom remains in a box. It must be unpacked in between other tasks for classes already well underway because the kit arrived late.

And a few moments to unpack boxes is not all the teacher needs. He must review the curriculum and plan lessons. He will draw from his own experiences, but knows he needs more. This preparation is what will make the class more than just fun with robots or gadgets. The course must nudge students to think like engineers.

For instance, one class might include a problem asking students to program the robot so that it travel exactly the distance of a line of tape on the floor. Students often default to a trial-and-error approach, Stern said. They run the robot for two seconds, notice it goes too far, so they try 1.5 seconds. And so forth.

A professional engineer or computer programmer does not rely on a trial-and-error method to solve problems. Bridges and skyscrapers aren’t designed by throwing spaghetti against the wall. Math is used to design something that can be logically expected to work.

For this lesson for high school freshmen, the wheel on the robot is the key. Measure the circumference and figure out how many rotations of the wheel are needed to precisely stop at the end of the tape. It would be easy enough to just tell the students this. But it is better for them to figure it out themselves.

Later in the course, when they tackle the more complex problems, the seed will have been planted. The children are more likely not to get stuck on trial and error. They have what they need to independently arrive at the most efficient solution.

“This way, they learn what to do and why it is useful,” Stern said.

Sarah Butrymowicz contributed reporting. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital ed.

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  1. If Mr. Stern is interested, I co-authored an NEA Foundation Grant to get a classroom set of calculator robots. They are robots that attach to the TI-84 calculator and are programmed using code on the calculator. We were able to purchase a classroom set of 30 robots for a very reasonable amount. This could be a bridge from the calculator coding to robotics.

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