We’re Using Engineering Tools to Teach With

Post Written In Collaboration with Ness, Blackbird Code

It has never been more important than it is now to focus on creating more opportunities for all students to explore STEM topics. However, there are gaps in the types and levels of the curriculum being offered in our schools. It has been reported that there will be 3.5 million jobs available by 2025 that require STEM skills of which coding makes up a large part of that need. While we recognize that there is a growing need for students to develop skills in coding and in STEM-related fields, there may be barriers, whether real or perceived, to providing these learning opportunities.

We need to provide students with opportunities to explore their interests in coding. We need options that lead to more authentic experiences that develop essential skills for the future. There is a level of comfort needed when bringing in STEM, whether familiarity with some resources for getting started or willingness to dive in and learn right along with and from the students. Regardless of comfort level, we all need to promote the development of STEM-related skills in our classrooms.

A solution

About a year ago, I came across Blackbird and started to use it in my classroom. It has been a great way to help educators bring coding to students because it provides the support they need and opportunities for more authentic and personalized learning, integrated with subjects they are already teaching.

Blackbird helps educators to bring more engaging, student-driven, hands-on learning experiences to the classroom – including coding in a way that is accessible to both students and teachers, and develops data processing skills for the future.

Many educators may think that coding is not something that can be done in their classroom. Often schools lean on the skills of specialized computer science teachers, taking it as given that they are the only people who can share this knowledge, and that it’s so difficult to learn that only a few students are going to succeed. But education is changing, and those assumptions are increasingly out of date.

How Blackbird makes a difference

Blackbird makes it easy for all educators to bring coding to the platform because of its design and the many supports and resources that it offers. Blackbird uses an educational version of JavaScript. Programming languages, like JavaScript, Python, C++, and so forth, are engineering tools, and on their own, they’re terribly unfriendly, especially for those just getting started in the classroom. This may sound like a technical distinction, but the difference is important, so let’s take a closer look.

First of all, programming is a process of:

  • writing code,
  • testing it to find the mistakes, and
  • correcting (or “debugging”) these errors.

The most important feature of an educational coding system is how it teaches debugging. With a regular coding language, when you run a program with a bug, the most common result is that you get a blank screen, or sometimes an unintelligible error message. This result is fine for engineers, who are used to it, but for beginners, it’s very discouraging! Imagine students or teachers getting started with coding, who are just building their confidence, what this unhelpful response can do to their interest. It would lead students or teachers to disengage from coding and potentially miss out on areas of personal interest that could impact their future.

Images from Pexels

Blackbird is different, however. With an educational language, when you run a program with a bug, it opens up an educational debugger – a friendly tool to help you correct your mistakes. The process of learning is supposed to involve the making of mistakes, but we need to have support in place to help students to work through challenges and build their skills.

The structure and scaffolded support of the platform enables students and teachers to build skills at their own pace. Blackbird allows for differentiation and enrichment through the workshops and built-in supports that are available. For students who may be hesitant to start with coding, it supports them as they build their skills at their pace and in a way that is supportive to their needs. When working on their own, whether in the classroom or at home, the system takes them through the process of fixing errors with the debugger. Learning to code can take place anywhere.

There are other supports in place for them, such as “Show Me” which provides a correct line of code when the student needs it (students get a star when they don’t use Show Me). This promotes more personalized learning, as students can work at their own pace, completing challenges and quizzes, earning stars, and doing capstone projects that allow them to use the skills they’ve learned in a more creative way.

Blackbird Code

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