Introducing Robotics and Coding: An Evolution of the Computers Curriculum

Technology has become a powerfully defining feature of the 21st century and enmeshed into the fabric of our society. A teenager in New Zealand can video chat with their family in New York at the touch of a button. A commuter can add notes to a meeting agenda in real-time while they are crossing the sidewalk on their way into the office. If a child is interested in how to build a bicycle, a simple search will bring them access to limitless videos and articles within seconds. 

While the benefits of its impact have been mitigated at times by well-known drawbacks, there is no question that technology has radically improved efficiency, performance, and creativity across all sectors.  

The Windward School, recognizing the value of technology and how it can better the world, introduced a pilot program this year that incorporates robotics and coding into the computers curriculum for all fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students. These classes not only help develop students’ computational thinking muscles but also reinforce other important skills such as problem solving and teamwork.  

No matter the path that Windward students hope to pursue—becoming tomorrow’s engineers, historians, journalists, professional athletes, or designers, to name a few—the evolution of The Windward School’s computers classes to advance technological literacy will strengthen students’ computational thinking skills to help solve any problem they may face in the future.  

The evolution of The Windward School’s computers classes to advance technological literacy will strengthen students’ computational thinking skills to help solve any problem they may face in the future. 

A Strategic Commitment to Growth 

Above all else, Windward is a mission-driven organization that is committed to being a leader in educating children with language-based learning disabilities. The School’s evidence-based curriculum and its proven direct instruction model are two pillars of the Windward Way, and expanding the computers curriculum is a significant step forward in ensuring that the program continues to provide the absolute best educational program for the remediation of language-based learning disabilities.  

In 2019, the Board of Trustees developed its latest iteration of the Strategic Plan, Writing the Next Chapter, to guide the school for the next five to seven years. One key focus area identified in the Strategic Plan was investing to support growth, specifically to “leverage technology to advance the mission of The Windward School.”  

To begin meeting the benchmarks outlined in Writing the Next Chapter, Windward created the role of Director of Educational Technology to lead the School’s innovation, integration, and implementation of technology within academic programs. Under the director’s guidance, Windward will ensure that its educational technology program affords students the full range of skills they need for success at the next level of their academic career. 

Beginning during the 2021-22 school year, Mr. Vergara joined the community as Windward’s first Director of Educational Technology. He is a native New Yorker, born and raised on the Upper West Side, and a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science. 

Mr. Vergara taught kindergarten and second grade at The School at Columbia before focusing on educational technology. He was the first lower school technology integrator at Ethical Culture Fieldston School before working as the technology coordinator at The Bank Street School for Children. 

In his role at Windward, Mr. Vergara collaborates with faculty, staff, and families to ensure that educational technology needs are met. He oversees how instructional strategies and applications will be applied in the classroom and provides the accompanying training so teachers can successfully integrate technological methodologies.  

Since beginning his role as Director of Educational Technology in July 2021, Charles Vergara has been driving the pilot program of robotics and coding across all three campuses. In addition to developing the foundation of this evolution of the curriculum, he has also been a critical technology teaching expert to the faculty members who are delivering the lessons.  

“Students need a range of learning skills, and what’s exciting about coding is that it is offering another type of learning that Windward students are used to, which is direct instruction,” said Mr. Vergara. “Coding is an iterative model, meaning there is more than one way to solve a problem. In computers class, students have the opportunity to face an open-ended challenge, have the agency to apply unique strategies with the tools they have been taught to use, and find solutions.” 

Broadening the Technology Toolkit 

Although the curriculum expanded this year for Grades 5-7, the computers class has been one of the “specials” on rotation at Windward since the early 1990s. Historically, the once-a-week class has focused on computer proficiency—keyboarding lessons, the Microsoft Office suite, Teams, file management, Zoom, navigating websites, and shortcuts—with the goal that students would be knowledgeable about operating commonly used tools for all their classes.  

“Our students still need to learn practical basics, but we are looking at how computers class can grow to teach more than productivity skills,” said Mr. Vergara. About a third of this year’s computers classes were dedicated to introducing the core ideas of programming, through robotics and coding, to the fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. In its pilot year, the lessons across the three grade levels were similar but adapted to be developmentally appropriate for the students’ abilities.  

Because coding can be particularly difficult for students with learning disabilities to access, Mr. Vergara acquired Matatalab coding robot sets as an initial tool for the computers classes. “The bots follow command sequences that the students create, like forward, backward, left, right, and so on,” said Mr. Vergara. “This is a tactile way for students to get immediate feedback, because they see a direct correlation between their code and what the robot does. This is harder to see with computer-based programs, so the robot is an entry point of representing programming in a concrete way.” 

The computers classes later progressed from an unplugged screen-free environment with the robots to interacting with coding language on student laptops using the web-based software called Scratch. The Scratch website allows students to create digital designs, animations, games, and stories with a highly visual and block-based interface.  

Two of the teachers at Westchester Middle School who led the computers classes, Mike Freedman and Tim Lucas, emphasized how Scratch was an excellent learning tool for their students. “The instruction set increased from the bots to Scratch, so the students were able to create complex and creative ideas. It’s not just an elementary level program, as I saw my students performing quite sophisticated sequences,” said Mr. Lucas.  

Agreeing, Mr. Freedman said, “From a teaching perspective, we still follow the direct instruction approach, as we introduce these coding concepts in a similar manner to how we introduce concepts in every other class at Windward. We reinforce the vocabulary that students see in Scratch, and we have a sequential way of introducing the material in manageable portions throughout the year. Following the Windward methodology is critical to the success of the computers classes.” 

An Inside Look at the Computers Curriculum 

Multisensory Learning Approach 

For her Westchester Lower School fifth grade students, Sara Jo Karger leaned on Windward’s multisensory methodology with every class. Before she even introduced the Matatalab bots, Ms. Karger first led her young learners through a kinesthetic lesson to demonstrate the concept of coding, which is simply directing a computer what to do. “My classes created a map of the Westchester Lower School floor plan, with starting and ending points,” said Ms. Karger. “We created directions that said how many steps forward before making a turn or how many stairs to go down in order to walk through the building. So when we went to use the bots, the students clearly understood they were mimicking the same process but giving a sequence of commands for the robot to perform.” 

Creative Problem-Solving 

Mr. Lucas described how his Westchester Middle School seventh-grade students often work together to figure out a problem they’re facing. For example, Scratch operates on a coordinate plane, and one student might be confused about why their animated character is appearing in a different quadrant than intended. “I see the students say things like ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘What if we switched out that’ or ‘We can test this and see what happens.’ It’s encouraging to see how they have this environment with computers to experiment and find solutions together.” Manhattan Middle School Teacher Derek Kirk also added, “This exposure to computational thinking processes will not only give students skills that will enable them to perform robotics and coding activities well, but also instill in them confidence in their approach to problem solving across other content areas as well.” 

Cross-curricular Applications 

Teachers repeatedly noted how there were a number of crossover opportunities between what they were teaching in computers classes and students’ other academic courses, particularly science and math. In conjunction with their math classes where the Westchester Middle School sixth graders were studying angles, Mr. Freedman demonstrated how the Matatalab robots could be another tool for understanding the topic. He placed the bot inside a large, printed clock face, and the students would create sequences so the bot would draw various angle degrees. “The sixth graders used the degree tiles to create code sequences so the bots would draw the angles for different times, such as a 90-degree angle to represent 3 p.m. on a clock. It was fun to see the students recognize how the coding they learned could be applied to have a secondary understanding of angles, and it’s not just a math problem.” 

Strengthening Language Strategies 

No matter the subject area, language is always intentional and reinforced for Windward students, and the computers classes are no exception. Manhattan Middle School Teacher Derek Kirk explained how language was consistently underscored in his classes. “Shortly after reading a lesson aim, every class begins reading aloud a pre-selected list of pertinent key terms and definitions. They refer to them throughout the lesson to check for comprehension and mastery.” Some examples of new vocabulary words that were introduced included debugging (correcting a problem), parameter (modifier), function (a block of code), and event (something that starts an action). Additionally, the fifth, sixth, and seventh graders were familiar with the strategy of tracking text in a book with their finger to help them decode complex language, so they were encouraged to do the same when reviewing their written code in Scratch to look for errors.  

Innovative Computational Thinking 

When using the bots, the students would be challenged to write an accurate code to direct the bots to move across their map landscape to reach its destination. Through their self-directed explorations creating various sequences, the students soon realized that there are always multiple paths to reach the same outcome. “The fifth graders had so much fun with the freethinking that came with seeing there were several different sequences that would move their bot to the correct ending point,” said Ms. Karger. “As we advanced, I would challenge them to perform a sequence with the least amount of tiles to highlight working as efficiently as possible. They would then have to step back and think if they could do the same thing but in an even better way, which, as a teacher, I want as a mindset for my students.” 


Emerging Technologies at Windward 

Launching the pilot program of robotics and coding this past school year was an exciting step for The Windward School in meeting its charge to leverage technology to advance its mission. Looking ahead, Windward plans to formalize a three-year sequence for robotics and coding for the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades in Manhattan and Westchester.  

Computer literacy is a modern-day necessity, and the continued growth of the computers curriculum at Windward will be designed to equip students with practical knowledgeability and, moreover, with a greater capacity for sequential, logical processing of problems and solutions.  

“The computers classes offer another type of learning environment for students to be confident in and succeed,” said Mr. Vergara. “Our hope is that teaching computational thinking will support students so they can thrive at their next school and in their adult lives, with whatever path they choose.”