An event at Sky View Middle School in Bend taught kids and adults basic coding skills for them to apply in a project challenge — making an automated chicken coop, an automated greenhouse or a digital pet — later the same day.
But the day wasn’t just another science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — event.
“It’s not just technology or coding,” said Scott Olszewski, Sky View’s principal. “It’s a new way of learning.”
About 20 Sky View middle-schoolers, educators from Bend-La Pine and nearby districts and community members gathered in Sky View’s cafeteria from 1 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday to participate in Make-a-thon. Kids and adults learned coding skills and worked with circuit boards in teams and were a challenge.
With limited time, teams weren’t building full-scale chicken coops or robot dogs. Instead, they used tools such as cardboard to create small models of their ideas.
Angie Mason-Smith, a career and technical education instructional specialist with the High Desert Education Service District, coordinated the Make-a-thon, put on by Innovate Oregon and SparkFun, a Colorado-based electronics retailer.
While the Make-a-thon is a one-day event, the purpose behind it is much bigger than that.
In the coming weeks, a group of Central Oregon principals, including Sky View’s Olszewski and Assistant Principal Brian Uballez, will go through a series of sessions learning how to implement a new kind of teaching strategy.
That strategy includes the teacher being a guide as opposed to the “sage on the stage,” a term in the education world for an educator — the expert — standing in front of students and talking at them instead of interacting with them. Like those at the Make-a-thon saw on Wednesday, co-learning with students can be scary for adults. They’re not totally in control, and they are figuring out the lesson with the students as they go, Olszewski said.
But the benefit to that, Olszewski said, is that kids are applying what they’re learning right away. Olszewski said he and his staffers at Sky View use the analogy of bricks and houses: They have to teach kids basic skills first, but the goal is to launch them into their own projects — the building of houses. Those “houses” will look different from student to student, but they’re using what they’ve learned in class and are applying it.
Olszewski doesn’t expect in two weeks for his middle school’s teaching style to be turned on its head, but he does hope to see a few teachers starting to change their delivery.
Thompson Morrison, with Innovate Oregon, said there have been several Make-a-thons across the state, but Wednesday’s was the first in Central Oregon.
The point is to put a team on a challenge, so that a variety of people are working together to come up with a solution.
“It’s not about technology; it’s about empowering makers,” Morrison said. “When they get the challenge, you’ll hear them quickly negotiate their roles.”
Everyone has a creative genius, Morrison said, and in situations where teams are put together to solve a problem, everyone’s strengths are revealed. The idea of the team approach to attacking challenges started with software companies, but has become common in the workplace, from organizations such as John Deere to National Public Radio, Morrison said.
“We don’t see that, ‘these kids are the smart kids, and these are the troublemakers,’” Morrison said. “Everybody has different strengths, but everybody has a gift.”
At a recent Make-a-thon at a school in Oregon, they needed one more student to participate. The school’s principal pulled a kid from detention to join, and the result was remarkable, he said. The student added a lot to the team, and the principal learned something about the teen.
Derek Runberg, with SparkFun, led the coding lesson during the Make-a-thon, teaching a mix of young and old, ranging in skill from new learners to experts. The adults and students had laptops so they could follow along with Runberg’s actions on his computer, projected on a big screen.
Grace Finch, 12, a seventh-grader, sometimes codes at home after learning coding at Ponderosa Elementary School.
“I feel like I can create,” she said.
Grace enjoys coding and was often seen helping teammate and friend, Jynna Beagles, also 12 and a seventh-grader, who had never coded before.
Both girls were keeping up with the adults on their team, two tech experts, and sometimes getting ahead of them. Next to Grace sat Manny Freitas, a retiree three years out of the computer business that he worked in for 40 years. Most recently, Freitas was a field engineer for Apple in Cupertino, California.
“It’s fun, and it’s giving back, and it’s staying engaged,” Freitas said, admitting he was sometimes sacrificing keeping up on his circuit board to make sure the girls were on track.
First, everyone worked on their circuit boards to make them power a light. Later, Runberg directed them how to rewrite the code to perform a new task.
Vickie Perryman, an instructional technology coach with Redmond School District who was on the same team as Freitas, Jynna and Grace, explained what they’d be doing next.
“It’s the same program, but it’s sound now instead of light,” Perryman said.
“Cool,” Grace said, holding out the “o” sound for several seconds.
Perryman smiled and chuckled. It was true what Morrison with Innovate Oregon said about everyone’s strengths coming through, even before they began the challenge. Grace and Jynna’s team would try to build a digital pet with a wagging tail.
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