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Springfield, Massachusetts, students bring mythological creatures to life using block coding

Milton Bradley Elementary School fifth grader, Cameron Chapman, excitedly flipped the switch on his project. His mythological creature, a kitsune, lit up and moved.

“I picked this one because it reminded me of the nine-tailed fox from Naruto,” Cameron said. “It's a kitsune. It's a Japanese fox. It means fox in Japanese, too.”

Cameron's group drew a fox head on paper, along with 9 tails, coloring them in vibrant reds, purples, and blues. Then, they used a coding kit to install purple lights for the eyes and to make two of the tails move.

“It has these many tails because the older it gets, the more powerful it gets. When it gets to 10 tails it…regenerates. The only way to kill it is by killing its tail. So it's almost immortal,” Cameron said.

They used what’s known as the Hummingbird coding kit to make the tails move and eyes light up. The technology is funded through a UMass grant that integrates computer science in the curriculum for Springfield, Massachusetts, students.

Led by teacher Erin Demarest, these Milton Bradley Elementary students put their block coding computer skills to the test by bringing to life mythological creatures they learned about in class. It was a three-month project.

“I taught them how to set it up. They played around with it. When they were looking at their projects, they decided, ‘OK, I think the tail should move. I think the eyes should light up’ and all that stuff, but I really didn't require any of that. I let them choose everything they wanted to do with it,” Demarest said.

She worked closely with each team in her 18-student class and said one of their biggest challenges was figuring out what angle to position the moving parts at.

“How far you want it to turn, everything like that. And it's all really just trial and error,” Demarest said.

For example, student Layla Barnett and her group chose to do a hydra — “because it looked cool and it looked like a dragon,” Layla said.

She said it was really difficult to get the two other hydra heads to move the way she wanted it to.

Milton Bradley Elementary computer science teacher, Erin Demarest, showing the Hummingbird block coding technology used to make her student's mythological creature paper drawings light up and move.
Nirvani Williams
Milton Bradley Elementary computer science teacher, Erin Demarest, showing the Hummingbird block coding technology used to make her student's mythological creature paper drawings light up and move.

“I feel like the head should have been in the back, but, well, it was still good,” Layla said begrudgingly. “It still looks good. It looks like the heads are floating, but it's fine.”

At this point, the fifth grader shoots her teacher an annoyed look. As Demarest explained, she had to tinker with Layla’s original concept.

“Like Layla said, she wanted the heads behind it, but it kept knocking in and it was starting to destroy it. So I then made the executive decision and built them a little bit higher," Demarest said. "And we were very disappointed the next day. But she soon saw that we did it for a reason and just have to adjust our thinking sometimes.”

Demarest said that’s what she loves the most about computer science.

“It gives them that chance to fail a little bit and then fix it. And they get to learn that mistakes are OK,” Demarest said.

So when they’re out in the real world, they can think back on their project about mythological creatures and remember they can solve problems with just a little bit of perspective.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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