First and Second Graders Learn Algorithms and Angles


“Forward is 0 degrees, right turn is 90 degrees,” shouts a tiny first-grade student as she helps her partner code a robot through a maze. Elementary school students generally don’t learn angles until about fourth grade, but when students get the chance to code a robot, they will learn just about anything. At least, that’s a common outcome for BOTSwhich aims to motivate students to excel at computational thinking.


BOTS is the nickname for the project called Building Opportunities with Teachers in Schools (BOTS)whose goal is to foster digital equity in three elementary schools: Sheridan Street Elementary School, Murchison Street Elementary School, and St. Odilia School. All are located in Boyle Heights, where schools have long been documented as under-resourced in computer science. BOTS’ goal is to empower teachers to teach coding and robotics activities that produce measurable impact in computational thinking among their 1st- and 2nd-grade students. By doing so, schools will be able to “skillfully mentor and inspire students to amplify learning with technology and challenge them to be agents of their own learning, which is directive 17 identified by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s Instructional Technology Task Force 


USC VAST student worker, Kendall Work, interacting with Murchison students.


The BOTS team transposed's online maze to a 3-D floor maze to help the 1st- and 2nd-grade students learn to program the robots. USC Viterbi Masters student in Computer Science, Yuka Murata, centers the Sphero SPRK+.

Throughout the semester, the ten teachers have been providing their students with the necessary background in coding and computer science that enables them to use the robots as learning tools rather than toys. Since August, the enthusiastic teachers have been mastering’s free curriculum, Computer Science Fundamentals, and using it with their students. The teachers have also met monthly with the USC robotics students to experiment and learn together how to incorporate Sphero Sprk+ robots in the activities. This integration requires transitioning between the two dimensions of the online mazes and the three dimensions of a robot moving with direction, speed, and duration.

Developed by USC Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher (VAST), BOTS is a pilot project supported by USC Good Neighbors Campaign and the Specialty Family Foundation to create a Community of Practice of ten first- and second-grade teachers and USC students skilled in robotics. Together, the group uses a Research-Practitioner Partnership model to co-create scalable and affordable inschool lessons in robotics/coding to help build student computational thinking and technological agency 



Transitioning between's 2-dimensional coding challenge and Sphero's 3-dimensional movement required the students to work with angles (direction), speed, and duration (distance).


Murchison 1st-grade teacher, Ms. Montijo, encourages her student using the "word board" to confirm understanding before the students were provided the robots.

Over the months, the VAST team has analyzed the results of their experimentation with BOTS and developed activities to help bridge the virtual and physical learning environments as the final step before using the robots. Because the direction of the Sphero SPRK+ robots must be coded by angles, rather than the simpler words “move left,” it proved a challenge for the team to communicate to first- and second-graders who have not yet learned about angles. They engineered a creative response: in addition to adding angles to the floor mazes, the USC students also wrote an original song in English and Spanish about how Sphero robots change direction by angles.

This painstaking work paid off last week at Murchison School when two of the Murchison Street School teachers -- Mr. Umana and Ms. Montijo -- invited the USC robotics students to help them introduce the robots to their classes for the first time. Mr. Umana created a word board to build students’ fluency in coding in three dimensions, and together with help from the USC students, the Murchison students applied what they learned in the online activities to same maze recreated on the floor of the auditorium.   


USC VAST student worker, Tyler LaBonte, interacting with Murchison students.

Last Friday, Ms. Montijo and Mr. Umana, along with their Principal, Ms. Elvira Juarez, joined seven members of the VAST robotics team to share the robots with the 40 young students. The excited youngsters applied all they had been learning throughout the fall semester. Using pair programming while working on mazes helmed by a USC student, the Murchison students easily used angles and the practice of pseudocoding (thinking through the program prior to coding it) and then successfully programmed the robots to run through the maze.  

In January, the other eight BOTS teachers will follow this sequence of learning online coding, bridging to the 3-D situation of robots, then pair programming the robots. With ten teachers at the heart of BOTS, the sphere of their influence can be considerable. By the end of the academic year, at least 250 early elementary students in Boyle Heights will have been taught the basics of computer science by the  BOTS teachers. And the BOTS teachers will have spent the full academic year bringing this new, important teaching tool to Boyle Heights. 

To further these gains, an outreach component called El Círculo Familiar is planned for January to engage the families of the BOTS students. El Círculo Familiar will begin a series of four Saturday “playshops” so that the entire family can build digital literacy together. Supported by a grant from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, El Círculo Familiar is a collaboration of USC VAST, PBS SoCal, and Professor Allison Trope of USC Annenberg’s Critical Media Project 

On the floor of Murchison School last Friday, the enthusiastic students had no idea how much collaboration had gone into supporting their easy transition to coding robots. They thought they were having fun. In fact, we were all having a great time. 


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Published on November 20th, 2018

Last updated on April 6th, 2022