Johnson County schools using technology to transform teaching

The colorful robots Bee Bot, Dot, and Dash are helping kids at Meadowlark Elementary School learn how to code.

Purchased with a $48,000 grant in 2019, the collection of robots is the centerpiece of the technology room at Meadowlark Elementary, where technology teacher Krista Sweckard walks the kids and their robots through their paces while teaching important 21st-century skills like coding and digital literacy. The robots are just another example of how the influence of new technology is changing how kids learn across the district.

“They were talking about coding from kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Meadowlark Elementary School Principal Laurie Graves about the first time she heard about the push to bring coding education into schools. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I could not wrap my mind around what that would look like at the K-2 level. … But we were able to buy these tools, and it was a game changer.”

The Bee Bot is for the youngest kiddo. Kids as young as 5 can program the robot to follow a series of commands with physical buttons, while the bigger Dot and Dash robots can be programmed with an app on an iPad or on a computer screen. The tools help build up a basic understanding of coding and an active use of computers before more advanced computer science courses in middle and high school. The school also uses games such as ScratchJR to teach the basics of coding.

In 2019, the Wyoming Department of Education released a set of computer science standards that were required to be implemented by districts before the start of the 2022-23 school year. The committee set to develop the curriculum wrote that “it is essential for every Wyoming student to learn (computer science) as part of a modern education.”

A draft of the curricular standards outlines benchmarks for kids from kindergarten through 12th grade, ranging from “protect and safeguard their information” in younger years to “create a computer program using sequencing, selection, and iteration.”

Sweckard said she first learned about the robots at an International Society for Technology in Education conference in 2018. The school was planning on replacing its aging computer lab with a new suite of computers, but after the teachers saw new innovative tools like Bee, Dot, and Dash, they decided to write grants for the robots instead.

“Kids learn through trial and error,” she said. “I knew I wanted our curriculum to be hands-on and tangible.”

Sweckard helps train teachers on how to use the devices in their classrooms. She said that some of her sweetest moments are when she talks to older students who begin to apply the fundamental concepts they initially learned on the robots in more advanced courses.

“You don’t just want to be the consumer,” Sweckard said. “You want to be the producer. You want to create awesome things. … You are creating using the technology. You’re not just passively consuming it.”

With the more complicated robots like Dash, students are able to change the robot’s speed and angle to draw different angles. That helped kids do exercises such as tracking the path their bus makes through the neighborhood to start to see visual angles and degrees. Sometimes, the robots are used to play spelling exercises or do basic math.

Last spring, Sweckard hosted a talk for a parents group at Meadowlark Elementary about the new ways the school was using technology to teach their kids. She showed the parents the educational Minecraft that the school was using to teach their kids basic math and brought out the bright yellow Bee bots.

“I think it just shifted their whole thought process on how technology is taught and utilized in the schools,” Graves said of the meeting. She said that over the past 10 years, the schools had gone from bubble-backed computer monitors to whizzing robots and interactive learning games.

At the K-5 level, the curriculum is integrated into the rest of the school day, but computer science courses are separate at Cloud Peak Middle School and Buffalo High School. At the high school level, Sweckard has a game-design curriculum and also a class called Emerging Technologies, in which students focus on robotics, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. She also teaches AP Computer Science, which is an advanced placement class in the coding language Java.

Sweckard also coaches an esports team at the high school. While coaching, she underscores the importance of a healthy relationship with technology and taking time for in-person relationships and activities.

“There’s a happy medium in everything,” she said.