A brick-by-brick curriculum model lays the foundation for some of the most advanced STEM students in the country. Lindsey Schutters visits Curro – a science and technology school of note.
Christo Spies is a maths and science teacher who has only quite recently taken up the mantle as the robotics teacher at Curro’s founding Durbanville school. He is also quite obviously Afrikaans. Not that his English is lacking, but rather he has to translate information twice in his mind before unleashing a new term on his students. It will happen in a split second, but Spies will see an object – say, a Lego brick – then recognise it in his mind. Now he has to sort through his vocabulary for a suitable word. “Baksteen” is a direct translation, but “blokkie” more accurately conveys the concept. Now Mr Spies needs to translate back to English and then repeat himself in Afrikaans to make sure everyone understands.
Kicking off with Lego at Curro
Despite the field of study not being fully considered in his native tongue and despite it being a specialised subject, he does a cracking job at it. The children are fully engaged throughout the lesson. Today’s lesson is about line following and the children are doing a lot better than I would. I’m in the Grade 5 class with an age range between 10 and 12 years. It’s still very much the foundation phase of Curro’s science masterplan which starts as early as Grade one.
Tony Williams, Curro project manager for IT and robotics, lays out the strategy. “The kids start in Grade 1 and 2 with the big blocks and then Lego bricks, moving on to the WeDo (also Lego) system in Grade 3.” Grade 3 children design games in the MIT-developed and Java-based Scratch language alongside the basic picture recipe coding they are exposed to with the WeDo system. These coding basics prepare their minds for the more advanced coding. They will encounter this from Grade 4 to 7 when they move to Lego’s Mindstorms platform.
From beginner to master
Even then, at Lego Mindstorm level, the progression is steady. First building simple robots and programming basic movements, then learning about sensors and finally combining that knowledge into coding robots to accomplish complex tasks. The line-follower script relies on the robot’s light sensor to keep it on the black line and the robot is set off to follow its coding at the press of a button, or a pressure sensor. In Grades 7, 8 and 9, robotics is voluntary and children can choose to join a club. These children will also compete in the World Robotics Olympiad, which these robotics classes follow closely and prepare them for.
A couple of Curro kids have represented South Africa and those kids have gone on to score well in other international programming competitions. At junior high school level (Grades 7, 8 and 9), the students fur-ther develop their understanding of sensors before applying that knowledge to rocketry and even launch a CanSat. Though this is all fantastic, the school does have its eye on the ex-pected outcomes set by the government. Curro must still comply with the Independent Education Board’s standards. Matriculants also need to pass the national exam in order to achieve their certificate and be eligible to study at university.
The foundations of science and technology
Jaco de Kock is the science and technology subject expert at the Curro Centre for Educational Excellence (CCEE) and he is passionate about the solid foundation Curro kids get before they need to start concentrating on the national exam. “You don’t really have space to move (within the curriculum) in Grade 10, 11 and 12, so you have to trust your teachers. They rush through a year when they need to touch on all the different topics. So we focus more on Grade 7, 8 and 9 and try to strengthen the weakspots (within the Curro curriculum) and look for duplication. For instance, there’s duplication in electricity in natural sciences and technology, so you can save some time by focusing on scientific principles in natural science and then taking a more practical approach on the technology side.”
Adapting to change
That’s really Curro’s main advantage: the school curriculum is active. The CCEE is populated with experts for each subject. The curriculum is also constantly revised and adjusted to keep up with real-world developments. Curro is also heavily invested in tablet-based education. The electronic books (cheaper than its printed counterparts) are supplememented by addenda which are updated via a central server. All 27 schools are updated at the same time. On the natural science side there’s a similar scaling built into the curriculum. “In Grade 8 they start to do nanoscience with practicals and infor-mation from the CSIR,” explains De Kock.
“Then we have the Leonardo da Vinci sets which we introduce in Grades 7 and 8 where they build these structures. If they do bridges in Grade 8, they build the Da Vinci bridge. If they do wheels and axles, they build the Da Vinci mobiles. We feel that at that stage they need to have a precise idea of what a bevelled gear is. They must be able to see what it is and where it’s working. Giving them the precise, German-engineered sets allows them to gain a precise visual and mechanical understanding.”
21st Century Education
One of the underpinnings of Curro’s “21st Century Education” is this notion that coding is the new literacy. Whereas that sentiment is in keeping with international trends, the people in charge of the school’s curriculum are sensitive to the fact that data logging is just as essential. “In Grade 7 we use only the EV3 brick (Lego Mindstorms) and connect it to the data logging part of the EV3 or NXT Mindstorms. They use the brick to do practical activities and data logging,” De Kock continues. “The culmination is to build a robot that collects data, show that on the laptop, and collect and collate that information. That’s the ultimate goal in building a robot. Then in Grades 8 and 9 we have a relationship with FSAATI.
“The Mindstorms platform is great because the computer will throw out the graphical interpretation. When they get to Grade 8 they have something different (like the data sensors inside the CanSat or CubeSat). The data logger (in the satellite) sends data to the software program written by FSAATI students and it will pick up things like temperature, pressure and ambient light.” The children carry out various experiments with sensors. “For example, they’ll go home and put sensors in a freezer to see how the temperature changes. Or we’ll ask them to put one in the fridge, open the door and see how long it takes to get back to the required temperature. This also shows them how much energy people waste every time they open the fridge door.”
When all these experiments are complete the kids are left with mega-data. But that’s still far down the road for the children in Mr Spies’ class. Right now they’re struggling to overcome the urge to overdesign the robots and jeopardise their chances of success on the mat. I feel for them. The photographer has taken position in front of one of the windows. Her shadow is affecting the integrity of the light sensor readings. It’s a frustrating exercise in futility. But it will arm them with the practical experience to write a more robust code.
Mr Spies is a patient man and takes the disruption graciously. I don’t envy him, because he is learning at the same rate as the children. He tells me that he wishes they had robotics when he was growing up. I share that sentiment, but these things only existed in movies when I was 11 years old.
I wonder how my teachers would have coped with the added pressure of learning an entire new field of study. Hell, my science teacher couldn’t keep an amputated baby gecko alive. Thank God for teachers like Mr Spies and their unfailing commitment to improving themselves for the good of the children. And there’s a lot to be learnt from Curro’s 21st century approach to education; except for the title. I’ll have a word with their management about that.
The art of the brick
Lego Mindstorms is Curro’s chosen robotics platform because of its maturity and wide availability. The World Robot Olympiad also competes using these sets for similar reasons and because Lego is the event’s main sponsor. Children learn through creatively interacting with complex tasks in a medium that is familiar to them. Robot customisation is endless, but the fundementals are sound. This year’s WRO challenge is centred on recycling and waste management. The robots need to follow a path to a Lego block that must be then moved to the waste area in as little time as possible.
This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.