Programming class relies on failure, trial and error to help students learn

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MFL MarMac freshman Jaxon Lenth programs the S3 Scribbler Robot with a series of code he’s created on his laptop to dictate the robot’s movements. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Lenth watches as the Scribbler etches out the letter “G” on a piece of paper. “I have so many tests on that paper,” he said, noting that trial and error is how he learns best.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

MFL MarMac student Jaxon Lenth watches as the S3 Scribbler Robot rolls across a piece of paper. A blue Sharpie marker inserted into the middle of its small, green frame, Scribbler navigates and turns on its own, etching out the letter “G.”

The robot doesn’t really move on its own, though. Lenth has told it exactly what to do using a series of code he’s programmed into Scribbler. Built through a program on his laptop computer, then downloaded onto Scribbler with a USB cord, the code dictates how far Scribbler should move, when it should move and in which direction. The “G” is the second to last letter in the phrase “Go Bulldogs,” which Lenth has worked throughout the semester to write using the robot.

That might seem like a long time to write two words, but the programming and gaming class took breaks to work on other projects and curriculum.

Plus, said teacher Melisa Jones, “Just getting the robot to do things takes time. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

Lenth, a freshman, didn’t know a lot about coding or computer programming when he signed up for the class.

“In middle school, we did coding a bit,” he said. “At first, I was intimidated.”

His sights set on a career in the automotive field, Lenth felt learning more about technology in high school would be helpful.

“Cars have so much technology in them now,” he said, recalling details from a career fair he attended last year. “The auto and diesel tech had a cool tablet they could plug into a car and it could tell you everything.”

Now, with the semester drawing to a close, Lenth admittedly feels more comfortable.

In addition to programming Scribbler, the class has tackled basic computer science principles and learned about binary numbers and creating binary messages.

“We’ve gotten into learning how to create new functions and be creative with algorithms,” Jones added. “We’ve learned about abstraction.”

“That’s a way to take stuff that’s being repeated and shorten it up,” Lenth explained.

One unit focused on electric connectivity and circuits.

“I enjoy all the stuff you can learn how to do. It’s fun,” Lenth shared. “With circuits, if a wire is in the wrong spot, you could mess up a lot of things.”

Another of his favorite projects included making code to program nearly every button of an old Sony remote, which can then be used to issue commands to Scribbler. The robot has sensors the remote can utilize to make it play sounds, light up and move around.

Jones said the class alternates between the hands-on robotics and the curriculum that delves into how to program and code. Lenth is currently the only student in the class, since the other moved away earlier in the semester, so Jones often lets him take the lead.

“He can take ownership of his own learning. If something interests him, he can take hold of it,” she said. “It’s fun to say ‘What do you want to learn today?’”

“We teach each other,” Lenth quipped.

Like other classes, Lenth said this one also encourages students to keep at a goal, an assignment or project until it’s accomplished. But here, he’s ultimately rewarded for making mistakes along the way. For him, that’s the best way to learn.

“I have so many tests on that paper,” he remarked, pointing to the sheet where Scribbler created the latest “G.” 

“You really learn how to problem solve, which is a skill you’re going to need,” Jones added.

“What’s different with this class,” she said, “is that, when I assess him, he’s allowed to fail. He’s graded on perseverance and problem solving.”

Jones said people often think of coding and computer programming as skills that are black and white. But that’s not really the case. 

“There’s a lot of creativity involved,” she stated, even with trial and error. “There are many different functions to get the same result.”

Jones hopes more students will continue to take programming and coding classes, and she would even like to create a STEM club that would allow kids to showcase their skills and participate in competitions. 

“Some students who aren’t in sports or other activities need a way to showcase their talent, their interest in electronics and engineering,” she said. “I want a way for them to be able to show off.”

Lenth said learning these skills will be valuable for many future careers—maybe even future living in general.

“Maybe, in the future, this will be a recommended class,” he mused. “People might have to use these things every day.”

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