After the green flag went down, cars raced down the track toward the finish line as NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne watched. However, this race wasn’t at the Kansas Speedway — it was in the gym at St. Joseph Catholic School in Shawnee.
Kindergarten and sixth-grade students showed off their joint work building a track and coding Dot and Dash robotic cars at a special assembly last week.
Last fall, teacher Lisa Fox won a $100,000 grant from Farmers Insurance to buy new technology for the school. The school is buying iPads for its 450 students to use at school, but it also invested in other equipment to help students of all ages learn how to write code, including the robots used for the race.
“A lot goes into that — to get the cars to turn and move and come back and then go straight. Coding and programming — however they do it, they did a really nice job,” Kahne said. “These kids have a lot of spirit and enthusiasm. It’s a neat school and a good group of kids.”
Kahne said he’s been part of this Farmers Insurance program for schools for three or four years. Farmers sponsors Kahne on the racetrack, and he came to the school’s assembly ahead of the Go Bowling 400 race he competed in Saturday at the Kansas Speedway.
Last spring, Principal Sue Carter got an email about the Farmers Insurance Thank America’s Teachers program, and she passed it along to Fox, with the idea that they might apply for a $5,000 classroom grant.
“She said, ‘Sue, I read through this. They’re giving away $100,000. We’re going for the $100,000,’ ” Carter said.
Fox and a group of other teachers worked on the application all through the summer. After the school became a finalist, it had to compete with other schools for a popular vote on Facebook to win the grant.
Carter and the teachers reached out to current and former students to encourage everyone to vote online every day of the contest. Four teachers got Facebook accounts specifically to be able to vote. School officials found out they had won the money in December.
What made the school’s proposal stand out from many others was the way it connected the technology the school wanted to the curriculum, said Kelly Lamar, managing lead for the Thank America’s Teachers program.
“We researched coding, and we realized how important it was in all aspects of their learning — creativity, collaboration, inquiry,” Fox said. “All those areas of education that are important now — coding fits right into all those areas, and it’s a good tool to use with the kids. They code the robots to make them move, make sounds, talk, blink different colors, and when we heard Kasey Kahne was coming, then we thought we’d have them make the race cars.”
For the race cars, kindergartners and sixth-graders worked together to write the code to program them to race, as well as building the car around the robot. Lisa O’Toole, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at St. Joseph, said that peer mentoring was one of the valuable aspects of the project.
“Even in their spare time, this is what they want to do. They want to code. They want to get their hands on the robots. It’s just such good problem-solving and a lot of collaboration,” O’Toole said. “There’s so much with STEM education now. … You look even at these racetracks: They had to measure; they had to use protractors to get that angle just right.”
Carlie Black, 11, and Chloe Kelly, 12, designed the pace car for the race, and they both enjoyed the process.
“I like that it showed us new things that we didn’t think we could do,” Carlie said.
Beth Lipoff: email@example.com