Niskayuna STEAM bus makes first school visits

First-graders get a lesson
Niskayuna STEAM Bus mobile classroom at Hillside Elementary on Monday morning.
Niskayuna STEAM Bus mobile classroom at Hillside Elementary on Monday morning.

Niskayuna first-graders started coding on Monday, thanks to the district’s new roving science and technology bus.

The vehicle, created by a team of high school students who converted it into a mobile classroom, visited three of the district’s elementary schools on Monday, with the other two schools slated for visits on Tuesday. The students-and-teachers team behind the STEAM bus gave first-grade classes a taste of computer coding.

The first-graders were asked to draw paths across pieces of paper that small robots – called Ozobots – could follow. The Ozobots were coded to follow the path of a dark line and react to particular combinations of colors. Once they hit a piece of paper striped in different colors, the robots stopped, or slowed down or sped up.

“That color combination makes the Ozobot always stop,” said Emma Anderson, a Niskayuna High School sophomore, as she worked with a group of Hillside Elementary first-graders. “While over here, on red, blue, red?”

“It slows down,” said first-grader Graham Stafford.

“Right,” Emma said.

After spending time playing with the robots, the students gathered to talk about how what they learned related to writing computer code.

Frank Adamo, a middle school English teacher, has shepherded the bus project alongside colleague Steve Wolfort for nearly three years.

A group of high school sophomores also made the trip to the elementary schools Monday, where they helped younger students through a lesson plan the sophomores helped design. Some of the sophomores have been working on the bus project since they were in eighth grade.

For years, they have planned and raised donations. Over the summer, they helped remodel the interior of the retired school bus, which was donated to the effort by the district. During a day off from school last week, a group of the students met at the district’s bus garage to work out the lesson plan. On Monday, they made their first visit to actual classrooms, bringing a passion for science, technology and engineering – but also a passion for teaching.

“A couple of kids were asking where they can get Ozobots for Christmas,” said sophomore Haley Neufeld, who joined the group because of her interest in teaching. She noted a level of interest on the part of the first-graders that indicated they might take their interest in coding beyond the hour they spent in the class.

“The things we do can carry into other things, which is the goal,” she said. Neufeld, whose mom is a third-grade teacher at Rosendale Elementary, said the lesson was also a powerful example for teachers. “They learn the kids like to program, and they can implement that in the classroom.”

The high school students also said they were relieved to see the STEAM bus enter a new phase. While Monday’s lessons took place in the first-grade classrooms, in time, the team will host lessons on the bus itself. 

The vehicle is outfitted with a custom solar-power system, whiteboard tables and 10 computer stations. As the project has come to fruition, the high-schoolers said, the attention has been squarely on them. But that was never the intent.

“It was all about us; it was our project,” Neufeld said. “But our goal is not about us. It’s to teach the kids.”

That all changed when they visited their first class, they said.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was here for until today,” Anderson said.

For the first-graders, watching the robots scurry across their hand-drawn routes was all they needed to get excited. The Ozobots slowed down to pass a school, sped up through a scary forest, stopped at a scenic overlook to take a picture and stopped at the store to pick up a cake before speeding back up to make it to grandma’s house.

“Most of the time, it doesn’t work the first time,” said Wolfort, one of the two teachers organizing the program, while guiding the first-grade students through the lesson. “If it doesn’t work, what should we do?”

“Raise our hands,” some of the first-graders guessed.

“Well, what about before you raise your hand?” Wolfort pressed. “I don’t want to give you the answer.”

“We should try again,” said first-grader Olivia Stewart.

The lesson was as much about the trial-and-error of science and the excitement of discovery as it was the mechanics of coding instructions in robots. In one of the classrooms, Adamo told a first-grader that sometimes the three most important words are: “Figure it out.”

That ethos was also part of the lesson for the high school students involved in the project.

“We gave them the bots and told them to make something,” Adamo said of directing the high school students to come up with lesson plans using the Ozobots. “We said figure something out.”

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