Providing the code to a successful future: UCode teaches skills in fun sessions

Matt Steecker, Ithaca Journal Published 10:49 a.m. ET Jan. 24, 2019 | Updated 4:29 p.m. ET Jan. 24, 2019

There’s now a solution for children who dislike abstract STEM problems and concepts — and it’s located at The Shops at Ithaca Mall.

Inside a shop resembling a sparsely filled, spacious Apple Store decorated with a wall resembling an orange circuit board and other furnishings, Northeast Elementary School students recently created code for robots using the programming language Python.

With codes, children were able to have the robots move forward and do actions like rotate clockwise or counterclockwise.

UCode, an educational company based southwest of Los Angeles in Hermosa Beach, California, develops students’ computational thinking skills with a curriculum that was made in partnership with faculty from the Cornell University College of Engineering. UCode has five locations, all of which are in California, except the site at the Ithaca Mall.

Throughout the group’s first hour-and-a-half session at the mall, students alternated between creating code on a laptop at work station tables and then grabbing their Lego Mindstorm robot and running to a test table to try out their code. On computer screens, segments of code like “MotorB=LargeMotor (‘outB’)” and “MotorC=LargeMotor (‘outC’)” were displayed on computer screens.

Students at one table worked with already constructed robots, while other students pieced together their bots bit by bit.

“I know what I need to do,” said Lex Torelli, an 8-year-old third-grade student, as he assembled his droid. “We’re figuring it out.”

After construction, Liam Riehl, an 8-year-old third-grader, set his robot on a test mat, placed his hands on the barrier of the test table, leaned over, and repeatedly and enthusiastically kicked his feet out to the sides as his robot performed a countdown and moved across the mat.

Lex’s bot nearby was rotating.

“How did it do that?” Liam asked Lex.

Liam’s mother, Kirianne Riehl, brought him to UCode because he is fascinated by robotics, and she said he would feel accomplished by participating in the program.

“It gives him a sense of competence and control,” Riehl said. “That’s powerful, because it gives him a sense of potential.”

Before Liam and Lex placed their robots on test mat, Julia Madrid, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Ithaca, approached the table with her droid, which started speaking to her.

“Did my robot just talk?” Julia said.

She then set it down and it started moving.

“Mine is going!” Julia said while quickly shooting her fists into the air and keeping her arms extended as she expressed exultation.

She later raced her robot against the bot being used by Claire Poles, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Ithaca.

“Mine won already,” Julia said.

As students worked on their robots and codes, UCode instructors and personnel provided assistance and gave constructive criticism or positive reinforcement, depending on the situation.

“If the idea is to run the robot, you are doing well, but we are not just here to run the battery,” said Janet Carmosky, the lab’s academic director, to the students. “The goal is to make the robot to do what we tell it to do — not run off. Make it do a dance.”

Returning students like Lucy Pietrasz, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student at Dryden Middle School, also went to UCode on Tuesday.

“I really like that I’m learning new things every day,” Lucy said. “It’s easier to understand than regular school.”

The UCode curriculum has been tried and tested, and is now in its fifth generation. As students progress through the course, the robots go through different obstacles on the mats.

For example, the mats have yellow rectangles printed on them. The word “orchard” appears in text on these rectangles. Because the rectangles represent an orchard, a student may have to navigate their robot around the orchard for one of their challenges.

“Our mission is to teach young learners the skills they need for the algorithmic economy,” Carmosky said. “We see automation taking over manufacturing, and artificial intelligence taking over white-collar jobs. Our future workforce needs to be skilled in work situations that require machines.”

The current Python Plus program is intended for children between the ages of 9 and 14, and a Robofun program for younger children will start in March, Carmosky said.

In addition to developing computational thinking skills, students learn and apply vocabulary related to speed, power, vectors and other terminology, as well as concepts like the relationship between time, distance and power.

“It really focuses them,” said Mackenzie Torelli, Lex’s mother. “I’m surprised by how quickly they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. It’s much more extended than what they do in school.”

A UCode trial membership with four lessons costs $49.95, and full memberships also are available.

“What never seems to fail is no matter who the kid is, they turn into an engineer,” Carmosky said. “You see a joyful, patient focus.”

And many do not want to leave once their session is over. In fact, one child whined and briefly cried because he had to leave UCode early to go practice karate.

“UCode teaches them math isn’t a chore. It teaches them that it’s something used to achieve a goal,” said John Barrett, academic director of instruction at UCode. “I asked a kid how he will make his robot reach the third line. He yelled, ‘I can use math.’ That’s not something you hear so often.”

To Lex and Liam’s disappointment, the session they referred to as “epic” had to come to a close.

Some of Lex’s last words he said to his mother, Mackenzie Torelli, before leaving with her were, “Do we have to go already, Mom?”

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