Sunday 15 December 2019

Robots in your classroom as learning enters digital age

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Attymass sixth class pupils Éadaoin O'Malley (11) and Jessica Feeney (12) work with Lego robots under the guidance of principal Sean Gallagher Photo : Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Attymass sixth class pupils Éadaoin O'Malley (11) and Jessica Feeney (12) work with Lego robots under the guidance of principal Sean Gallagher Photo : Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

This month, there has been snow on the ground at Attymass National School under the Ox Mountains in Co Mayo.

The principal Seán Gallagher decided it was time for the pupils to design and build their own programmable snow ploughs using hi-tech Lego kits.

Attymass National School junior infants work with a robot Photo: Keith Heneghan
Attymass National School junior infants work with a robot Photo: Keith Heneghan

The principal says: "They had to design the snowplough, apply their own ideas and build it. They had to test it and retest it."

At other times, the pupils at Attymass have been programming mini-robots, experimenting with earthquake simulators and shooting their own films.

Attymass is the sort of innovative school that the Government hopes to encourage with its Action Plan for Education in 2018.

This year, as part of the plan, the new School Excellence Fund aims to support clusters of schools to undertake innovative projects in areas such as digital technology and creativity.

Second class pupils from Attymass NS Sarah Melody, Lucy Roche, and Éabha O’Malley, all aged 8, working together as a team Photo: Keith Heneghan
Second class pupils from Attymass NS Sarah Melody, Lucy Roche, and Éabha O’Malley, all aged 8, working together as a team Photo: Keith Heneghan

As a two-teacher rural school with only 42 children, Attymass National School shows what can be achieved using technology.

Before he returned to the classroom to be principal at Attymass, Sean Gallagher was head of the ICT section of the Professional Development Service for Teachers.

The PDST, which comes under the Department of Education and Skills, provides support for teachers in areas such as technology.

Gallagher says: "There is an awful lot of talk about coding and programming as part of the curriculum.

"I have done a lot of research into it. What we do here in the school is integrate it into everyday life, so that it is not seen to be a separate entity in itself."

The principal wants to encourage "computational thinking" among the children.

This is the skill that enables children to interact with a computer by programming it with precise instructions.

At Attymass, the infant classes work with small programmable robots known as BeeBots.

"We get the infants to programme them to make basic movements - like right and left, forward and back."

Older children build their own programmable machines using Lego WeDo kits.

"They can build little racing cars, or helicopters that have a winch on them. These can be programmed by a computer using Bluetooth.

"The earthquake simulator shows what happens when there is very heavy shaking - and a red light comes on."

The racing car has a sensor at the front so that it will stop if there is a wall in front of it.

"It is similar to the technology that you would find in Elon Musk's Tesla self-driving cars."

Sean Gallagher believes it is better for children to learn coding through this type of experimentation, rather than just tapping away on a screen.

"We are looking to create a generation of people who think their way through situations and problems."

At Attymass National School, the creative side of learning is just as important as the technical side.

The school harnesses new technology to enable the children to tell stories in films.

This year, children will be taking part in FÍS, the film project for primary schools.

Groups of children learn about the techniques involved in telling a story through film.

These including planning, scripting, storyboarding, cameras, lighting, audio, music, set design, costume and acting.

At the moment they are devising a story centred on two poplar trees at the front of the school after they come down in a storm.

Creativity, the harnessing of new technology, and innovation are cornerstones of the Action Plan for Education 2018, launched earlier this month.

At the launch, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "We want to encourage schools to do things differently; to try things that are new and different. We want to fund that, see what works and potentially mainstream it."

This year, under the Action plan, the Schools Excellence Fund will support clusters of schools to collaborate in exciting ways on projects related to teaching and learning how to use digital.

This is part of a strategy to make digital technology a central part of teaching and learning across the country.

The clusters will see schools work together on projects that will help to achieve this aim.

Examples of these might include using technology to implement changes in the curriculum, or as a way of boosting literacy and numeracy.

Typically, between four and six schools will be in each cluster. The cluster will operate for three years with average funding of €30,000 for equipment, training and other requirements.

The fund focuses primarily on disadvantaged DEIS schools, and clusters will also be developed for Creative Schools.

Under the action plan, progress will also be made this year in developing a new Maths curriculum for primary schools, which will include elements of coding.

At second level, as part of the action plan, Computer Science will be studied as a Leaving Certificate subject in 40 schools from autumn of this year. Under the plan, support for ICT in schools will be enhanced this year through improved broadband services , grants for ICT equipment, and improved support services.

For more information on Project Ireland 2040 visit the official website 

Irish Independent

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