Failure is always an option: A new mindset for next-generation coders

Two museum educators using the blue bot

Miranda Weinert, Museum Educator, and Adam Carpenter use the Blue Bot during a training session at The Discovery. Photo courtesy of The Discovery.

David Feil-Seifer and the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum are teaming up to teach students that when it comes to coding, it's okay to fail.

In an effort to bring robotics and coding to K-12 students across Northern Nevada, David Feil-Seifer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and The Discovery are creating lesson plans and guides for area schools.

Dave Feil-Seifer

Dave Feil-Seifer

"The Discovery is the best institution to get a large percentage of students excited and familiar with a topic-last year we saw approximately 16,000 students," said Sarah Gobbs-Hill, vice president of education and exhibits at The Discovery. "Our hope is that by partnering with the University, not only will the students who participate be excited and engaged with hands-on learning of computer science concepts, but they will have the opportunity to dive deeper through additional hours of instruction via this partnership."

The project, funded by the Nevada Space Grant Consortium, allows groups of students and teachers to experience a lesson in robotics at the museum, with follow-up lessons the team hopes to bring back into classrooms.

"The Nevada Discovery Museum sees thousands of kids a year through their field trip program," Feil-Seifer said. "And an exciting thing about our partnership is they see schools that aren't a regular part of the College's Mobile Engineering Education Lab and haven't always utilized that program. This program with the museum, however, gives us the reach to see a more diverse and wider population of Northern Nevada classes."

The main lesson Feil-Seifer wants students to understand is that anyone can learn to code.

"We really wanted the initial lesson plan to show students that you don't have to be an expert, you don't have to be someone who was coding when they were two years old, in order to get into it," Feil-Seifer said. "I am very jealous of today's kids, because right now you don't need my level of education to start a robotics team. We really want to dispel the idea that in order to be a programmer, you have to work in your basement for days and days just to learn and create."

Feil-Seifer and The Discovery want students to bring a "failure is always an option" mindset to the lesson, challenging the stereotype of the genius coder and stressing that trial and error is key.

"I think one thing kids internalize with programming is that if you don't get it right the first time, then you did something wrong," Feil-Seifer said. "So much of programming is a debugging process - you tried something and it didn't work, but it did do something and now you have to figure out what. I have a program I've been working on this morning, and the sum of those changes for the entire morning was twelve lines of code, and that's normal, because a lot of what you're doing when you solve a program is changing small amounts of behavior that have a much larger effect overall. If you're doing it right, it's exactly like revising an essay for an English class, and we're really working on engaging students with this way of thinking."

Bringing robots to the classroom

The next phase of the project moves beyond The Discovery to bring lessons to K-12 classrooms.

"These lessons use simple robots to explore coding, algorithms and the design process in a hands-on way," said Meghan Schiedel, museum and school programs manager at The Discovery. "The starting lesson will happen on a one-day field trip to The Discovery and is targeted at fifth graders. Then teachers will have the option to sign up for connected lessons taught by University students through the Mobile Engineering Education Lab."

Classroom visits will be directed by Meg Fitzgerald, recruitment and outreach coordinator for the College of Engineering, and will include Candice Guy-Gaytán and Elizabeth Xeng de los Santos, assistant professors in the College of Education, and Adam Kirn, joint assistant professor in the College of Education and the College of Engineering.

"We were able to develop a low-cost robotics platform through online research, and we can make the products we need here on campus using the laser cutter and mass produce the things we need to bring to Northern Nevada classrooms," Feil-Seifer said.

Along with a continued focus on breaking down entry-level concepts and emphasizing the iterative process of coding, classroom visits will involve step-by-step programming and robotic teamwork.

"With one of the follow-up lessons, students will be working with moveable programming pieces that sort of remove the keyboard from the equation," Feil-Seifer said. "The idea is that the students will be looking at the robot itself and get a visual idea of what is going on when they move the programming pieces around before going at it from a computing standpoint. The other follow-up lesson will have students working with two robots and gaining an understanding for tasks that can only be done using two robots."

Feil-Seifer hopes that more lessons can be developed within the Cyber Security Initiative for Nevada Teachers, a summer research initiative that helps middle and high school teachers in Northern Nevada create cybersecurity lesson plans for their classroom.

"My group of teachers this year talked extensively about sensors that exist in phones and cars and computers and drones and how that affects privacy and how hacking those sensors can impact daily life," said Feil-Seifer, who is a co-principal investigator for the initiative. "The teachers are developing lessons for their classroom around this, and we can borrow and bring these lessons to our outreach program to reach more classrooms and more students across Northern Nevada."

Feil-Seifer and his team are also working to develop supplementary resources for teachers.

"One of the things we're working on for post-lesson planning is information packets or guides that can help teachers and their students start robotics and programming clubs at their schools," Feil-Seifer said. "We want to make sure that once we have kick-started the process, we give the teachers what they need to continue working with students who are interested and want to continue to pursue programming."