Procedural Thinking & Programming

Science students need to be able to follow step by step instructions to be successful in their high school lab activities. Reading for detail, understanding the technical and specific nature of measurement and data recording within procedures, and keeping track of their own progress through a series of steps, simple and complex, are skills that we focused on during this unit in RSP9. Activities scaffolded students from simple to complex, performing common everyday activities to writing code for introductory computer programming activities. Students moved through a series of activities to finally reach a level of being competent in writing highly specific detailed step by step instructions for their peers to follow successfully. Frustration was common along the way, but so was the satisfaction of 'victory' when success was reached after hard persistent work. Perseverance, thinking critically, understanding repeated loops of routine, and the reality of WHAT students write matters in a procedure were all skills that grew in ALL of the students over the course of this extended unit.

Beginning activities:

1. Verbal instructions for a simple activity- Students volunteered to provided real time verbal direction for the teacher to put on a jacket and zip it up. The first few students were the same students who could be relied upon to share their work at other times. They were comfortable taking the risk in front of peers. What seemed like a super simple task quickly revealed itself to be very challenging. The degree of detail, specific step by step instruction to the teacher, and clear language was obvious to everyone in the room. The next students to volunteer were the ones who, after seeing the failings of first few, "had it" and felt confident that they could be successful. Like the first few, these students also quickly realized that this was a tough task.

This first "eye opening" activity provided support to the students by providing instantaneous visual feedback of on their instructions. Seeing how what they said was performed, often hilariously, they could edit their thinking and correct their instructions. The class was able to engage in a meaningful and rich discussion of the nature of procedures, the level of detail required, and the risk of assuming people know what you mean. The class created a series of pages of "do's and don'ts", important ideas, and what they learned using the interactive white board (SmartBoard). The engagement of the students was high, all fully participated in a degree that maintained comfort for them, and it created a sense of excitement for the activities that would follow. The culminating activity of Lego Robotics was introduced at this point and the outline of activities, skill development, and timeline were shared so students could see the larger plan for the unit.

2. Written instructions for folding a paper airplane- The teachers folded a few paper airplanes at the front of the room as students entered at the beginning of class. Different styles, all fairly simple, were made and thrown across the room. Students were then given a few sheets of paper to fold a few of their own. Journal entry instructions were projected on the white board that asked students to WRITE step by step instructions for folding a simple paper airplane. All students engaged in the writing activity within a few minutes, with the typical few needing redirection to focus on the task.

As students finished up their instructions, both teachers circulated about the room following the student instructions one on one with the student. It was possible to give kids specific feedback, revealed assumptions being made, and gave the teachers the opportunity to see the level that students were starting at for this unit.

3. Verbal instruction giving (and receiving) without visual feedback in partners- Students were paired and the task for the class was outlined. Each would take a turn as an instruction GIVER and an instruction RECEIVER for making a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Students giving instructions would not get ANY visual feedback regarding their success! Students sat in chairs, back to back, with the sandwich maker sitting at a table and the instruction giver facing away unable to watch. Students were provided with two slices of bread, a paper plate, plastic knife, a small cup of peanut butter, and a small cup of jelly. (Note- no nut allergies among the students)

The activity was fun, frustrating, messy, hilarious, and successful. Most students respond well to food focused activities. Stepping up the difficulty coupled with food provided motivation for perseverance. The activity allowed the peers to give each other feedback about what was clear and what needed improvement. When the pairs switched roles, the second instruction giver had an advantage as they had just experienced what was missing or confusing as they were being directed. Class discussion followed that expanded the initial ideas about providing directions to others.

Intermediate Activities:

4. Written instructions to build a simple Lego design- Students were partnered and then pairs separated into two rooms. Each were given the same materials (6- 2X4 Lego bricks of a single color) and asked to build a simple design and write detailed instructions for their partner to follow to be able to successfully recreate the design. Photos were taken of each original design for comparison later. The students were eager to build the Lego designs and all engaged in the writing activity. They were given 25 minutes to build and write. Teachers circulated about the rooms, providing help or feedback as needed, checking in on progress, redirecting as needed. After the first part was completed, all models were disassembled, blocks put in plastic bags with instructions, and exchanged with partners in the other room. The next 20 minutes were spent TRYING to reassembled the models using the directions. Frustration abounded along with conversation about missing details and unclear instructions. The finished models and partners were brought back together into one room and we debriefed. Photos of the original models were compared with the final recreated models. Productive classroom discussion followed.


5. Writing directions for reaching locations within the school building - Students, working in pairs, were asked to write a set of wlaking directions for other students to follow EXACTLY to reach a location they determined. Location was kept nearby for the first activity and expanded to a larger area of the school building for the second activity. Prior to the activity, students discussed details they felt would be neede for this to be successful. They generated a list of "commands" that they could agree on, forward, back, right, left, what constituted a step (agreed that a walking step was a variable unit and needed a uniform unit = 1 floor tile), and other terms that made sense. This discuss provided evidence that thinking had grown substantially from earlier instruction-based activities! Peer pairs met after the activities to provide feedback for each other, some even inspiring others to redo their efforts...

LOGO Programming

LOGO was developed to be a very easy language or set of commands to draw on a computer screen which eventually evolved into a 3D graphic capable drawing environment. LOGO was chosen for RSP9 students for its simplicity and analogy to commanding students to walk to locations. It ended up making very nice connections to math ideas as well: angles, geometry, and units, all needed to be considered for the activities students completed. Students were provided examples of programming simple command lines. The iPad app for LOGO programming was especially useful as a teaching tool due to the example programs, designs they produce, and then easy sharing of the simple code written to create the designs.
With many different variations of LOGO software available, FMSLOGO was ultimately chosen as the programming language and installed by Hannibal's IT department on a mobile laptop cart. It was free, compatible with our technology resources, and had supporting information to help develop activities with. (FMSLOGO Manual) Students were able to work individually on laptops in the classroom. A few students in each class were quick to learn code writing and worked to help others that were having difficulty. It ended up being a great learning environment, challenging for all to one degree or another, but also giving a new empowering experience to those who were quick to succeed.
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Houses drawn as students learned to make turns, draw lines of planned length, lift pen up, put pen down, etc.

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Designs drawn by repeating commands, determining angles, line sizes, turns, and numbers of repeats.

Other LOGO varieties would work just as well: MSWLOGO MIT's Scratch LOGO Software source page

LOGO Curriculum Resources

Many from the Internet

Brian Harvey's Berkeley LOGO Resources
Source Forge FMS LOGO Projects
Easy beginning lessons using LOGO
The Role of Logo in Secondary and Post-Secondary Computer Science
MIddle School Programming Curriculum PLan using LOGO