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Crash course

Maui public school teachers learn to use coding to boost critical thinking in their students

A close-up shows Princess Nahi‘ena‘ena Elementary School teacher Linda Rickard holding a car used to teach computer programming during a workshop Saturday at the University of Hawaii Maui College. -- The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo

KAHULUI — It looks like a simple toy car with flashing lights that Mom and Dad might leave for Junior under the Christmas tree.

But don’t let looks deceive, said Ian Kitajima of Oceanit, a Hawaii company that promotes innovation through engineering and scientific excellence.

The car is actually a “very sophisticated computer that has four wheels,” he said.

On Saturday, Kitajima was at University of Hawaii Maui College wrapping up a six-day workshop for 18 Maui public school teachers who signed up for a crash course in computer programming. Oceanit and Kamehameha Schools made the workshop — now in its second year — available to the teachers at no cost.

The teachers’ goal: learn how to program the car to autonomously navigate a track, moving forward, backward, left and right, all while avoiding obstacles. Then, taking that coding knowledge back to their classrooms and incorporating it into disciplines like English, social studies and physical education for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Kalama Intermediate School 6th-grade technology teacher Mark Guaglione demonstrates his coding skills with an autonomous car in a classroom at the University of Hawaii Maui College in Kahului. Guaglione was one of 18 Maui public school teachers who participated in a six-day computer-programming workshop for non-coders sponsored by Kamehameha Schools and Oceanit. -- CRYSTAL KUA / Kamehameha Schools photo

Inspired by schools in South Korea where computer-programming classes are mandatory for all students, Kitajima said his goal is to expose Hawaii school students to computer coding (the software language for computers, program applications, cellphones, digital watches and the dizzying array of gizmos and gadgets out there), not only for students who are gifted and talented but for everyone.

His aim is to train 5,000 of Hawaii’s 12,000 public school teachers in the next five years.

“I’m not trying to turn every student into a computer scientist,” Kitajima said during a break in the workshop in a No’i Building classroom. “But the thing that’s really powerful about computer science is that it actually creates more creative problem-solvers. It creates critical thinkers.”

Teachers participating in the workshop needed to overcome some initial skepticism about learning to code, but they came away enthusiastic about incorporating computer programming into their classroom curriculum.

Diane Campbell, an 8th-grade science teacher at Lahaina Intermediate School who teaches about 175 students a year, said the workshop was one of the finest she’s ever participated in.

Princess Nahi‘ena-‘ena Elementary School Hawaiian immersion kindergarten teacher Liko Rogers holds a car used to teach computer programming while at a workshop Saturday at the University of Hawaii Maui College. He said he’s confident that, by the end of next school year, his students will be able to program the car to do simple maneuvers. -- The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo

“We get the cars to go forward, go backward, turn right and turn left, stop; sense when there’s something in front of it or when there’s something on the side of it; make a noise, take a picture — all these things we learned in just five days,” she said. “It really was a fantastic workshop, well organized; the manual you can follow right through is well done. The instructor’s fantastic.”

Campbell said her plan is to team up with another Lahaina Intermediate teacher and make arrangements to get 30 cars.

“In two weeks time, I’m sure every one of my students will be able to program that car,” she said. Then, “I want them to simulate a Mars rover. We’ll put rocks around the room and let the kids make sure their cars don’t hit the rocks.”

Campbell said she’s confident the computer coding for the toy cars will be a big hit with students.

“They’re going to love it,” she said. “I’m hoping it opens up for some of them the interest in computer programming and technology.”

It might “spark an interest” in some of her students in computer programming, a top career choice in an increasingly technological world, she said.

Liko Rogers, a Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary School Hawaiian immersion kindergarten teacher entering his 15th year of teaching, said people shouldn’t underestimate 4- to 5-year-old students.

“Kindergartners can absolutely code,” he said. “I’ve seen them do it year in, year out. We take our kids to the computer lab, and they do all the code where they use drag-and-drop blocks . . .

“Now working with the Altino car is a little bit more challenging than the drag-and-drop stuff that they’ve done in the computer lab, but I believe by the end of the kindergarten year the kids could program the Altino car to do simple maneuvers,” he said.

Rogers, who teaches from 18 to 25 students per year, said children have a natural affinity for technology.

“They love to play games on the computers and on the iPads and their parents’ phones,” he said. “Kids love to play with toys. When they see that little car, they’ll go crazy. . . . You know, it looks like a toy, but it’s really not a toy. It’s a robot. It’s a complex robot that can be programmed to do all kinds of things.”

Rogers said he created a board game with a grid in which students need to employ simple computer coding to sail a canoe from one island to another.

“On this board game . . . they have to lay out the proper commands to get the canoe to move in the proper direction,” he said. “I really think it’s something that is really going to hit home with the students. It’s a hands-on game that they can really connect with.”

Crystal Kua, a senior communications specialist with Kamehameha Schools, said Kamehameha Schools is investing in the computer coding program for public school teachers because the vast majority of Native Hawaiian children are educated in public schools.

Kitajima said Oceanit approached Kamehameha Schools to sponsor the program because it has a “huge reach” and the “biggest social impact in the whole state” in education.

Oceanit adapted the South Korean computer training program for Hawaii and created a custom curriculum, approved by the state Department of Education’s Office of Curriculum, he said. Public school teachers who complete the workshop gain three professional development credits that leads to increased pay.

“So, there’s an incentive for them to complete the course,” he said.

Last year, the program focused on Oahu teachers, he said. This summer, the program expanded to the Neighbor Islands, including Maui.

The teachers learn easy coding steps first and then build on them as the workshop progresses, Kitajima said.

“We learn (in) really, really baby steps,” he said. Then, “by the end of class, they’re able to program their car to autonomously drive itself.”

In the end, teachers learn a new way to teach, he said.

“Teachers are normally trained to be the sage on the stage,” he said.

Instead of leading a class and having all the answers, teachers transfer knowledge and watch as students take off and surpass them, he said. Then, the teachers’ task is to “give the kids harder and harder challenges.”

When the teachers leave the program, they still have additional support with online office hours with Oceanit, he said. And, the workshop graduates become their own network, interacting and supporting each other online.

Financial support for the program also was provided through grants from the state Department of Labor, the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation and the Castle Foundation.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.