Computer programming and data analysis have become essential skills in the modern workforce, and Chicago Public Schools now requires computer science training for all high school graduates. Our education outreach team has developed an effective coding course, Coding and Data Exploration with Smart Lamps, that engages students in programming hands-on “smart lamps” (an internet-connected LED lamp driven by a palm-sized Raspberry Pi microcomputer). We want to bring our innovative curriculum to as many classrooms as possible.
The students loved this unit. They were truly excited while coding the LED lights. - teacher at L. Ward Elementary & Middle School
Conception: Loop Lamp Summer Short Course
The LED smart lamp began as a summer short course on digital manufacturing and coding for our high school summer interns. Students learned how to customize their laser-cut acrylic lamp shells and program the LEDs within to flash in patterns. The students’ excitement working with LEDs inspired us to brainstorm ways in which we could teach computational skills using programmable devices in a long-form scalable format.
Introductory Pilot Program with Middle Schoolers at Dunne Academy
With funding from both our core RDCEP grant and a HIVE Chicago Spark grant (supported by the Chicago Community Trust and the Illinois Science and Engineering Innovation Foundation), we designed and built new smart lamp prototypes and introductory lesson plans to pilot a coding course with middle school students at Dunne Academy, a Chicago public school. The students’ and instructors’ feedback was very positive, and we learned a lot about how to improve the lessons for students with no coding experience.
Summer Students Helped Redesign the Lamp
After wrapping up our first pilot program at Dunne, our high school summer students from the UChicago Charter School in Woodlawn helped us improve and expand our smart lamps and lesson plans in preparation for a semester-long coding course. We redesigned the smart lamps so that students could begin coding on a smaller, less-intimidating 1x10 strip of LEDs and eventually scale up to a 10x10 LED matrix.
“This summer we learned how to program LED lights using data with Python. Computer programming has introduced me to something I never knew I liked and helped me decide what I might do in the future.” - Amaya, 10th grader at Woodlawn High School
Semester-Long Colloquium at Lindblom Math and Science Academy
Our education team taught an expanded course in a semster-long weekly colloquium class at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a Chicago public high school in the Englewood neighborhood. Students had a great time learning to code with the LEDs, allowing creativity and providing immediate feedback on their progress.
It was fun programming the lights to change colors and flash, but the best part was controlling the lights with data! - Camille, 10th grader at Lindblom Math & Science Academy
Teacher Training at the Center for College Access & Success
In partnership with NEIU’s Center for College Access & Success, we hosted teacher training workshops. We found that teachers are very interested in bringing our program to their classrooms, but they need more support learning to code themselves, setting up the Raspberry Pi software, and connecting the LEDs to the Pis.
I think this will get students working together and keep them engaged. I would like to add this program to my curriculum next year. - teacher at Melody Elementary & Middle School
In-class Training for Teachers in Chicago Public Schools
In an effort to better understand the coding curriculum needs of teachers and students, our education team has provided in-class teacher training and directly taught over 360 students in seven Chicago public schools. Students and teachers alike are excited every time we arrive to teach another coding lesson with the LEDs.
I love the fact that as a direct result of this course, I have students considering computer science as a possible career path! - teacher at Earle Elementary & Middle School
Challenges to Overcome
Currently, we don’t have enough hardware kits (Raspberry Pi, LED smart lamp, keyboard, mouse, monitor) to leave at each school throughout the duration of the course, so we have to set up and break down the kits during class time. On average, this takes about one-third of the time we have to teach each class. Teachers have also found it difficult to troubleshoot so many students’ individual codes on each Raspberry Pi.
Expanding Our Reach with New Online Virtual Resources
The success of our coding program has encouraged us to broaden our reach by building an interactive online curriculum and developing teacher training modules. These online modules will allow CPS teachers to cover some material independently before our team arrives for hands-on work with real devices. Students will be able to code virtual LEDs in a web browser on any computer or tablet without any special equipment. Their codes will be automatically saved online where teachers can troubleshoot and evaluate their work from a single central website. This will also enable our center’s educators to evaluate and monitor classroom progress remotely. Any school district will be able to replicate our curriculum and hardware kits through the accompanying online documentation and training materials. We are currently seeking funding to achieve these goals.