NAUGATUCK — A group of three Hop Brook Elementary School fourth-graders crowd around a computer and small gray robot, eagerly making suggestions to each other. Suddenly the robot shouts “forward” and begins to roll forward.
The three students let out a shout of surprise and laughter as they discover something new: they can make their robot talk before moving.
These moments of discovery are becoming commonplace throughout elementary schools in Naugatuck.
At the start of the school year, the district injected robotics and programming into the fourth-grade curriculum.
Computer literacy teacher Robert Hollern said the impetus for the curriculum started three years ago at Hop Brook when he and teacher Tom Deitelbaum created the robotics program.
“(Principal) Kathy Taylor was really receptive to it. She bought us our first three robots. We started it really small with just six kids at the time. They were loving it. They were engaged, digging the programming, and having a ball with it,” Hollern said.
The next year the program expanded by two robots and four students. By the third year the program had spread to Andrew Avenue and Salem elementary schools. At Hop Brook it was being held three times a year in order to accommodate as many students as possible, Hollern said.
“One of the bummers was we were taking 10 kids at a time and we were cycling through three groups of kids a year. But this is still only half of fourth grade. So you have 30 disappointed fourth-graders every year,” Hollern said.
That was where Curriculum Director Caroline Messenger came in to help.
“The kids were incredibly engaged in the work, in terms of programming and coding. We were looking at how we could bring this to all of our students,” Messenger said.
The district worked it into the curriculum and bought enough robots so every group of two students in fourth grade could work with one, Messenger said. It cost about $70,000, including teacher training and the robotics kit, she said.
Each robotics kit comes with about 500 Legos and a programmable computerized brain known as an “intelligent brick.”
“You can program on the brick, on the Chromebooks, or on the desktops. For logistics we stuck with the Chromebooks this year because we have a wealth of Chromebook availability and only 30 desktops,” Hollern said.
The students program and use the robots in their homeroom throughout the week and during their weekly computer literacy class, Hollern said.
“So now we have the entire fourth grade slowly getting into it. We are branching out and focusing on the programming this year. Each teacher is going at their own pace as they are getting comfortable with the design of it,” Hollern said.
Some teachers are learning along with their students, Hollern said, but the students themselves have really taken to this new curriculum.
“The engagement is amazing. You are seeing kids, who may not necessarily be into a normal classroom setting, who are involved, listening, building the robots, coding and helping other kids,” Hollern said. “Legos is a kind of a universal interest-builder.”
For Hop Brook fourth-graders Kellen Maher and Kristina Shau, who were showing off their robots earlier this month, the program has been a welcome addition to the curriculum.
“It’s really fun and for most groups it’s successful,” Maher said.
Shau likes that she isn’t limited to one design, since the robots use Legos.
“You can build your robot and build it different ways. You can build a dog, a mouse, a cat,” Shau said.
Maher wasn’t sure of all the capabilities of the robots but is eager to find out.
“I know there is a lot more stuff. But I don’t what the stuff is,” Maher said.
While the robotics curriculum is the capstone of the elementary schools’ coding program, the skills necessary are taught at every grade, Hollern said.
With the youngest students Hollern works on identifying the keys on the keyboard and teaching them the way the keys work. In fourth grade, the focus is on higher-level skills.
“Can you use a loop to program and, instead of having to write 10 lines of code, can you compress it into two lines of code? We are trying to hit all the skills these kids will need in this world and in this career environment where computers will be a big part of it going forward,” Hollern said.
Hollern is looking forward to the robotics program growing and evolving as the staff becomes more comfortable with it.
“I think once we get this foundational year in the books we are going to be focusing on those big-idea-type tasks. Like the space mission where kids will be able to integrate it into their reading, writing, and math curriculum. So it is not just another thing, but it is a fully integrated one,” Hollern said. “I think just carrying on into that real world application is where it is going to go.”