St. Mary students learn to help the world one code at a time

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

They say robots can do almost anything these days, and a pair of students at St. Mary School are learning how to put them to work to help make the world a better place.

Ava Olson and Madeleine Bottomley are students in Nathan Cousineau’s Grade 4 class and have been learning to work and code with a small programmable piece of technology called a micro:bit. The micro:bit looks a bit like a chipboard that might be found inside any piece of electronic equipment, with a pair of buttons and a grid of 25 programmable lights on the face. The device allows the students to get hands on experience with coding, something their teacher says they will soon begin applying to a much larger project.

“In conjunction with the micro:bit, we were fortunate enough to be eligible for a program that’s being put on in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development,” Cousineau explained.

“They have a list of goals that they would hope to achieve in the next decade or so and those goals are all in regards to sustainable development around the world. I think there are 17 criteria they are looking at, and that includes things like food security, protecting animals, protecting water, protecting people and their dignity and the rights of humans and the environment. So the U.N. has certain coding activities that support those initiatives.”

One of the projects that Olson and Bottomley will be working towards is using their knowledge of coding and the micro:bits to program a device that will be able to monitor soil humidity and moisture levels while growing tomato plants. A larger application of such a device would help people around the world combat soil erosion and increase their capability to grow productive crops, like the special tomatoes the students will be growing at the school this year. The entire program has roughly 20 different activities that will explore different applications for coding and the micro:bit technology.

The project the students will be working on is also special because of the tomato seeds they will be using.

“Interesting enough, we’re going to try to use seeds that were from another science experiment we signed these two girls up for called the Tomatosphere,” Cousineau said.

“What’s interesting is that we’re going to monitor tomato seeds that were actually up in the International Space station. They bring the seeds and they try to climatize them to a space environment for a year and then they bring them back to earth to compare and contrast the differences between the seeds that were in space to the seeds that were not in space. We have a lot of moving parts.”

Going into the project, both Olson and Bottomley said they didn’t know a lot about coding or how it worked.

“Coding is a programming language and I knew you could use it to tell a computer or robot what to do,” Olson said.

However, now that they’ve been learning coding with the help of the micro:bit system, they say they’ve begun to understand the value and importance that coding has in the world and going forward. One of the first projects they worked on was programming the micro:bit to function as a digital die, being able to roll a number with the press of a button or just by shaking it like you would real dice.

“I think it’s important to learn coding because sometimes when you’re an adult and you want to get a job, you might get a job that involves coding,” Bottomley explained.

The Ontario government only recently incorporated coding into the province’s math curriculum, and both Olson and Bottomley have their finger on how important the skill will be to their generation by the time they start considering their future careers. The project the students are involved in aims to show its value as a career and its broader implications for the entire world, Cousineau said.

“Coding is going to be part of the solution to problems we have today using that technology,” he said.

“We’re really excited because as a Catholic school we can incorporate our values that we have. Our faith values support this tremendously, so we’re looking forward to seeing how coding can help bring social justice to our communities. These two girls are exceptional students and we felt [coding] could be a good way to augment their day-to-day experience at St. Mary with something that could incorporate this new technology and also some of our values at the same time.”

Olson and Bottomley have also created a presentation they plan to give to the school in the future in order to explain both the technology they’re learning to work with as well as how it can be used in projects like the ones involved in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“They made this presentation on their own and that was part of the project, to make awareness about what we’re doing,” Cousineau explained.

“It’s not just about the coding experience, but it’s a total encompassing experience where there are multiple avenues we’re trying to to expose these girls to. I think at first they might have been a bit overwhelmed at the amount of information and the experience in and of itself, but now I don’t think I would have much problem putting a coding activity in front of them and both of them being very successful with that activity now. They’re enjoying the experience.”

Now that they have some experience and are having fun with coding and the micro:bit technology, Olson and Bottomley have had the opportunity to look ahead and get excited about some of the other avenues that the micro:bit could take them down in terms of learning and programming.

“In one of our Google Meets, Mr. Cousineau posted a link to this website that had lots of photos of robots and different things you can make using the micro:bit to code them,” Bottomley said.

She and Cousineau explained that because the micro:bit acts more like the brains in a larger system, there are plenty of other projects that can be purchased in order to serve different functions, including RC cars, different robots, or other fun projects that can be moved through programming.

“I’d also like to do the different robots and things like that with the micro:bit” Olson said.

“I’m also excited about the monitoring the soil project.”

The students plan to document the process of growing the tomato once Cousineau is able to find a safe and secure place to get it set up at the school to keep it social distancing and COVID safe.