The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Serious Fun

Upper School Update: Serious Fun with Arduino

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
With the introduction of Arduino to the eighth grade robotics curriculum, Fay’s eighth graders are experiencing first-hand the challenge and excitement of coding and design.
This fall, eighth grader Viacheslav spent a weekend on a video game. But he wasn’t just playing it, he was building it!

The robotics unit of eighth grade Physical Science was transformed this year by the introduction of Arduino, an open-source electronics platform with easy-to-use hardware and software. Small enough to fit into a quart-size Ziploc bag, each Arduino board has its own microcontroller, and students learn how to write the code that turns an input—like the push of a button or the flash of a light—into a desired output, such as adding a number to a scoreboard or activating a motor.

While Fay’s previous robotics software could only be used on a handful of computers in the classroom, Arduino software can be downloaded for free to any computer. Once students learn the coding concepts, they are able to pursue a range of projects at their own pace. Viacheslav, for example, borrowed an Arduino unit for a weekend and built his own version of Pong, an early-model arcade game where moving rectangles on either side of a screen are used to hit a ball back and forth. “Instead of playing games, students can try making their own games,” says science teacher Eric Lane, “and we want our kids to be makers rather than just consumers.”

Eighth graders spent the first four weeks of term learning how to write code for Arduino. “The most challenging part was trying to remember the code,” says eighth grader Caroline D. “It’s like a sport where I need to keep practicing to master the skill.” It helps that there is a useful synchronicity between coding and the math that most eighth graders are learning in Algebra I, as both involve the concepts of variables and inequalities. “The coding gives a purpose to what was just pure math,” notes Eric Lane.

The students’ first Arduino challenge was to program a functioning traffic light. Students wrote the code and created a simulation using Tinkercad, a 3D CAD (computer aided design) tool that they use in Creators Class. Students had to figure out how to make the lights work in the correct order from green, to yellow, to red, without any delay between the lights.

The students progressed from building on a screen to creating simple circuits with input buttons and switches. Working with variables, students incorporated sensors so that if the temperature rose above a certain threshold a fan would begin to blow, or if it got too dark, an LED bulb would turn on.

A highlight of the fall term was building simple games, such as a basketball game where the player throws a ball into a cup 
containing a light sensor. If the ball goes in and blocks the sensor, it registers a point on the scoreboard. “Kids can see what they are making, and it gives them a real sense of achievement,” says science teacher Xiaohu Zhao.

The unit was particularly engaging for eighth grader Jerry Fu, who hopes to pursue a career as a robotic designer. “I like creating my own circuits and programs based on the lessons we learn in class,” he says. “There are unlimited combinations and arrangements of components on the breadboard and different ways to code them.”

Although the Arduino unit technically concludes at the end of the fall term, students will continue to incorporate coding into their science work throughout the year. As part of their chemistry unit, they will write code to measure the temperature of a substance and display it on a screen. In physics, they will write code to operate the photogate sensor that measures the acceleration of a dropped basketball. “The students will see how the measurement devices work,” says Eric, “and they will actually understand what’s happening behind the technology.”

The response to Arduino has been overwhelmingly positive, and both Eric and Xiaohu look forward to taking the unit even further next year. “Over Parents’ Weekend, some parents mentioned that their kids never liked science before coming to Fay because it seemed pretty dry,” says Xiaohu. “With Arduino, the students learn how things work, and they are enjoying having so many hands-on building opportunities in class. It’s pretty cool!”
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