Coding, Cubetto and O&M

Around this time last year, a colleague of mine in the district’s Assistive Technology Program began exploring the coding equipment that had been purchased for the schools’ libraries. He demonstrated some of the devices at one of our staff meetings and I found them interesting and wanted to learn more, but, like many people, didn’t know how I could fit in my schedule one more thing to do.

At the beginning of this school year (back in pre-COVID-19 days), this same colleague (Erick) contacted me to say he was doing some coding activities with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at one of my schools and, as long as he was going to be there, he wondered I would be interested in introducing some coding activities to my students. Having someone to show me the ropes was really appealing. In addition, I had one student in particular who I thought would find coding a very exciting activity. “J” is a 9th grader who was struggling with having to leave his K-8 school and begin anew in a high school. He knew a few people, but not many, so Erick and I decided we’d do a small group Coding Club with my student who is blind and 3 highly social students from the Autism Program, one of whom was in the same class with J at his previous school and another who shares J’s love of Star Wars.

Cubetto robot navigating a simulated school route represented with tape and tactile markersWe started our group with the coding robot, Cubetto from Primo. Cubetto is a robot in the shape of a cube. It has two circles for eyes and a smile drawn on one face of the robot, so you know which way is front. There is also a tactile arrow on the top of the robot, so you know from above which way on the robot is forward. You create code (or movements) for the robot using a control panel – a wooden board in which you insert code blocks. Each code block action has its own color and shape. You can orient the shapes with the notch each piece has on the bottom edge. The blocks included in the basic set are: Go forward, left, right, and a special “function” block, which tells Cubetto to do a set of moves programed on other part of the board. 

The students took to Cubetto immediately. They decided they’d give it a name they choose together – “Sky.” They also decided that Sky is a male. Giving them the opportunity to give Cubetto characteristics of their choice helped them take some ownership in this project. 

At first, our group just worked on moving Sky around a table. We figured out that each forward move equaled 6 inches and determined how many forward moves we would need him to make to get across the table. Then, we had Sky go around obstacles we put on the table. In order to help J understand what we wanted Sky to do, I would line up chairs on the floor and have him go around them to demonstrate the same movement. He was remarkably good at this. It was amazing how quickly he could spatially plan Sky’s moves in a small area that he could feel and even demonstrate by moving around the chairs what he thought the movements should be. J had been struggling to learn a route from the bus enterance to his first class. We had worked for weeks on a route with 4 turns (right, left, right, left) for him to get in from his bus to his first hour class: Forward chaining, reverse chaining, tactile maps, auditory clues, talking it through before beginning. None of it was sticking. But coding…he was a natural. After seeing his ability to spatially plan with the robot, I decided to see if we could tap into this interest to assist in learning his route in school. 

We started by walking through the route, discussing landmarks, clues, and hallway lengths along the way. Then, we laid out the route pattern using masking tape on the floor of our classroom. We use some APH tactile stickers to mark some of our landmarks and tried to make Sky’s route proportionally correct. When we had it all done, we gave it a try. Instead of calling Cubetto by the group nickname, “Sky,” we called it “Little J,” as this was J’s route. We had to get Little J from the entry door to his 1st hour class by correctly coding him to do the route. When we were ready, we hit the start button on the control panel and off went Little J. With a gentile touch J followed Little J’s movements, laughing and smiling the whole way. There was a big celebration when Little J made it to first hour. 

The next step was to walk the actual route in the building. J decided he would be “Big Sky” when he walked the route. He wanted to be as authentic as possible, only making beeping sounds for each move, but I had to draw the line at him wearing a box over his head so he could look like Sky. We went to the starting line and J went into Big Sky mode. After each coding section, I would hear a little “beep” and the route would continue until successfully completed the route. It was pretty amazing. Without question, the 6-weeks of previous work we had put into that route had some baring on his success. However, until he found a connection that was meaningful to him, it really hadn’t stuck.

Throughout this school year, J has constantly said his favorite part of school is Coding Club. We have used other robots and programs for coding and he’s taken to them all. Being able to put together sequences to move a robot reinforced the route planning skills we worked on in our orientation & mobility lessons. If you have chance to explore some of the coding robots and devices out there, I highly recommend that you do.