Jett the robot brings inclusive coding to Texas district

Coding is becoming an essential skill for students no matter where they live, but for students in the Manor (Texas) Independent School District, which shares a border with Austin, Texas, programming can provide a huge advantage to landing a job in the large tech market next door.

To help students acquire these skills, the district launched a pilot program this summer using an accessible coding curriculum and robot called Jett from Robots4Stem. The same company is responsible for Milo, a robot that supports social skills development for students with autism. Like Milo, Jett and the coding curriculum are designed with features that can benefit students with diverse learning needs, according to the company.

In Manor’s four-week summer pilot, students in grades 2-6 in inclusive settings and grades 7-12 in resource rooms learned how to program the robot’s movements, facial expressions, and speech.

“This will help our students who might otherwise not be exposed to coding learn a real-world skill that they can use when they finish high school,” said Briatney Brooks, the district’s special education coordinator.

Implementing accessible coding activities may also help students realize earlier that STEM is an area of interest and a viable career path, said Gregory Firn, RoboKind’s COO.

“If we know that many coders are on the autism spectrum, why wouldn’t we want to introduce coding earlier in school and start identifying these characteristics as strengths?” he said.

Use these pointers to implement accessible coding in your district:

1. Plan ahead with your technology department. Talk with your technology staff about the infrastructure needed to implement the program. “We currently have two robots in our district,” Brooks said. “In the future, I’d like to have a computer cart go with the robot into classrooms rather than the students having to go to the computer lab.”

Brooks said that after the pilot this past summer, she plans on rolling out the program to six to seven campuses in the next school year. “We’ll be putting it in the schools with the best technology first, and I’ll be speaking with our librarians about expanding the program,” she said. The robot can be used with approximately 100 students. “We used it with classes of 30 students in inclusive settings and 15 students in resource rooms,” Brooks said.

2. Gradually expose students to more advanced coding activities. Introduce students to basic coding with simpler robots such as the Sphero and Ozobot, Brooks said. “We started with the Sphero robot as a building block before moving up to Jett, which is more advanced,” she said. “The intent long-term is to incorporate Jett into our functional academics curriculum,” she said. “Those students sometimes get left out of the conversation around STEM.”

3. Look to use the robot for targeted supplemental instruction. “This robot can also supplement what students are learning in class,” Brooks said. In a resource room, a teacher could use the robot for a mini-math lesson targeting specific skills that students are learning in their classrooms. “This can help personalize instruction for kids with different levels of ability,” she said. Working with the robot can be more engaging for students, she added.

4. Combine STEM with social skills, postsecondary training. Firn also suggested using the robot to combine social skills and transition activities with STEM lessons. For instance, a student could learn how to program the robot to ask questions that an employer might ask during a job interview. “The student could then practice answering those questions with the robot,” he said. Or a student could program the robot to show certain emotions and then work with a partner who practices recognizing the robot’s facial expressions.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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