Blog Post

Blending Curricular Areas: An Evolving (but Rewarding) Process

Four years ago, I began tinkering with the idea of incorporating robotics into lessons in my 6th grade classroom. Robotics and computer science began as something that was mainly done during special activities. This changed once I found connections with the curriculum, however, it did not stop there. Each year, this unit has changed and evolved. In sharing my journey so far, I hope to provide ideas for cross-curricular lessons in your classroom and start a discussion of other ways to integrate CS into core content lessons.

My journey with integration of CS began with connecting with our first science unit - astronomy. The students learn about the organization of the solar system, space exploration, and the interactions of bodies within our solar system. Why not take it a step further and tie in current space technology, but make it our own?

Year 1 (2016) - Just Rovers

At the beginning of the school year, students assembled Raspberry Pi robot kits and we used them periodically to practice basic coding skills. This included students working in teams to design and complete obstacle courses and take photos. At the end of our astronomy unit, students designed rovers to explore a new planet. Their rovers included an ultrasonic sensor and a camera and they designed obstacle avoidance programs using Scratch that took photos of any obstacles encountered. Much of the programming at this stage was copying sample code and making minor adjustments for individual team decisions (such as the distance at which the robot should stop and take a photo).

photo of student-created rovers exploring terrain

 

While this was an interesting and engaging project, the curricular ties were loose and there was little direct CS instruction. I was eager to build on this experience for the next school year.

Year 2 (2017) - A Little Help from NASA

The excitement of the previous year fueled changes for the second round of integrated lessons. As part of our getting-to-know-you activities, my students built and tested their robots on the first two days of school. This allowed them to become more comfortable with the hardware from day one.

They again worked in teams to design rovers to explore an unknown planet and send back to teams to analyze to determine if the planet was safe for astronauts to explore. Throughout the astronomy unit, they investigated space technology and built and designed their rovers. As the unit progressed, computer science mini lessons were included in science blocks to include how to build algorithms to complete an obstacle course and create more efficient code and logic statements. My students were now able to write programs for a variety of purposes.

Photo of student-designed rovers

 

As the planetary exploration day neared, I shared exciting news with the students - the (then) deputy chief scientist of NASA was going to join us at our “mission control center” as the student teams sent their rovers out onto the unknown planet! The students would have time to share their designs, programs, findings, and suggestions for next steps with an actual NASA scientist!

The student teams controlled their rovers and viewed pictures of the planet that was hidden from sight. Meanwhile on the mystery planet, rovers maneuvered around obstacles (including other rovers) and took pictures of the terrain. Students analyzed these images and compared them to other planets in our solar system as well as Earth to determine if it was safe to send humans to the planet.

This skill development early in the year allowed for more integration of CS throughout the curriculum. I was able to incorporate more CS mini lessons in different content areas, including Language Arts and math. Whether it was creating programs in Scratch to tell stories, creating songs using Sonic Pi, or traveling west using our robotic covered wagons across a map of the U.S., students had a foundation to build from.

Year 3 (2018) - #OppyPhoneHome

On June 10, 2018, NASA lost contact with Opportunity, one of its Mars Exploration Rovers. Opportunity touched down on January 25, 2004 with an expected lifespan of about 90 days. Instead, it explored Mars for over 14 years before losing contact. When the new school year started in August, NASA still had not made contact with Opportunity. It was our turn to help out!

Instead of searching a mystery planet, student teams were tasked with creating a rover for NASA to help fix Opportunity. We connected virtually with an associate chief scientist at NASA and shared design ideas and possibilities. This challenge inspired students to come up with a variety of solutions to propose to NASA to support Opportunity.

Photo of tweet showing messages students wrote about Opportunity rover

 

Again that year, we started by building and testing our robots on the first day of school and integrated CS mini-lessons throughout the curriculum with a variety of physical computing devices. This early practice allowed for the students to expand the sensors on their robots as well as their programming skills. In addition to creating programs to help explore the physical features of the planet, students created programs to log temperature data on the planet. First, they annotated sample code to explain what each portion does. They then worked in teams to modify the sample program to gather data in our classroom.

Photo of student code

 

I also worked with my school to incorporate more computer science concepts throughout the school, not just in some classrooms. This included leading a school-wide professional development session about computational-thinking strategies and possible curricular tie-ins. We designed and implemented an afterschool course for teachers to learn more about coding and physical computing. Teachers were interested in incorporating more coding into their lessons, however they did not know where to start. This course gave them a foundation in computational thinking strategies, practice with basic coding skills, and an introduction to a variety of physical computing devices such as micro:bit, Raspberry Pi, Makey Makey, and different robot kits. They picked a lesson or two and redesigned that lesson to include CS, such as designing a storytelling lesson using micro:bits and playing songs on instruments made using Makey Makeys and Scratch.

Year 4 (2019) - Inspired by Mars 2020

This school year started much the same in terms of hardware and getting the students comfortable with the robots and programming. The new twist was the delivery of core content and CS mini lessons. Instead of teaching social studies, science, and CS in isolation with connections in between, these concepts for the first quarter were all interconnected. The inspiration was the new Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to launch in July 2020. How can we support the Mars 2020 mission and beyond? Throughout our design-and-build process, we kept current on NASA’s progress on the Mars 2020 rover via news updates and the Seeing 2020 livestream from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

What made the biggest impact was the blending of curricular areas. Life isn’t divided up into distinct subjects throughout the day, so this was an attempt to bridge the gap between concepts in a deeper way. Our study of geography of regions of North America overlapped with investigations of the terrain of other terrestrial planets and the impacts on rover designs/programming. In lieu of traditional notes, students kept information and reflections in their engineering logs. Computational thinking strategies and vocabulary are prevalent throughout all curricular areas.

With this new focus on cross-curricular ties, I was able to incorporate more computer science concepts and student teams were motivated to incorporate more into their designs. Student teams designed and built rovers to support NASA’s Mars Exploration Program mission. Their rovers included a distance sensor, camera (some on servos), a temperature/humidity/pressure sensor or a light/color sensor, and some rovers included claws controlled by servo(s) to gather samples. Part of the way through our unit of study, families, teachers, and classes were invited into our classroom for a Work in Progress open house. Student teams shared what they had learned so far, successes, setbacks, and next steps. They later sent their rovers out onto a mystery planet for testing and shared their findings and design ideas with a NASA scientist who visited our classroom. The photo below was taken by one of the rovers during the exploration.

Mars rover simulation exploring terrain

 

Year 5 (Plan for 2020) - VIPER Lunar Rover

Next year, I plan to continue to interweave social studies, science, and CS lessons throughout the unit to allow for more extension of concepts. Instead of focusing on the Mars rovers, we will shift focus to the NASA Artemis program and the VIPER lunar rover.

 

Have you had success integrating CS into core content lessons? Share your experience in the comments!

 
Lisa Rode is a CS for All Teachers Community Ambassador who teaches sixth grade at Kings Glen Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. CS has transformed Lisa’s own classroom—she includes programming and robotics into all the subjects she teaches. She is passionate about advancing the integration of programming, computational thinking, and physical computing into all elementary school subject areas. Lisa was chosen as the 2019 Fairfax County Public Schools Outstanding Elementary Teacher.