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TechCHAT: Talking Hour of Code With a UCF Education Professor

Dr. Megan Nickels is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the College of Education and Human Performance at the University of Central Florida. Nickels researches how children with critical and terminal illnesses (cancer, HIV/AIDS, sickle-cell disease, etc.) learn mathematics through the use of educational robotics, conducting her research using Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot robots and the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kits.


Nickels recently spoke with EdWorld about organizing an Hour of Code event; using EdTech to reach different student populations, and more. 



How did you prepare for the Hour of Code event and what are your expectations for participation?


At the University of Central Florida I have no shortage of supportive colleagues and students who have come together to bring our Hour of Code event to life on December 8. We are also very fortunate to the have the support of Wonder Workshop who has generously donated their time and resources to bring further authentic coding experiences to our students in the form of educational robotics. A special guest speaker will also be speaking at our event.


I have previously conducted Hour of Code events, albeit on a smaller scale, so there was  not a lot of preparation that I needed to do in terms of conceiving what this event would look like for our students. Instead, my focus this year has been on including the population of critically and terminally ill children that I research in our event with the purpose of communicating to our future teachers, future computer scientists and software developers, future health care professionals, etc. the value of learning to code for this vulnerable population.



How has taking lead in the Hour of Code event at UCF made you think differently about how student interest in coding is inspired and sustained? How do you feel as a role model within the context of the event and beyond, specifically to young female students?


In my role of preparing pre-service teachers, I have the opportunity of reaching a large audience of female students as teaching elementary school remains a predominately female led profession. When it came to inspiring them to try out coding for themselves and in preparation for their future careers, the ‘magical thinking’ aspects of robotics held for them in the same way it did for the hospitalized children I research. 


Like all teachers, I am a role model; that is at the core of our profession. I do not prescribe to the model of teaching where the teacher deposits all of her knowledge into her students’ minds but, rather, I see teaching as an act of presenting myself as a role model and showing what it is to be an expert learner. I was taught in this capacity by my role models (Craig Cullen, Amanda Miller, Cindy Langrall to name a few) and I have always acted in this capacity as a teacher. Here at UCF, what I have recently reflected on is from my combined classes of 70-plus undergraduate students, half of them, all female, have asked to participate in my research and my outreach in the Orlando community for children with critical and terminal illnesses. In fact, at the start of this semester a female undergraduate student approached me and suggested that I start a student organization so that they would have a way officially to come together to learn about the work that I do and how they can prepare themselves to become teachers for vulnerable populations. And so I started the Pediatric Interest Group for Education, or PIGE. This group now convenes several times a month to learn about best practices for teaching critical and terminally ill children. I also take them into field placements and support them with their work with this population. By being their role model as they form their professional identities and continue to develop as educators, I know that they are becoming role models in their own right.



What has been the outreach process for bringing in students from underserved areas for Hour of Code? 


I have invited each of the children with whom I currently work in the Orlando area along with their families. By and large it has been my own undergraduate students who have gone out canvassing. They have set up places around the university telling others what we will be doing at the Hour of Code event and why, regardless of their major, it is an important opportunity to learn about computer science and computer science education. We have also reached to some of our area K-12 schools who will be in attendance, such as the Galileo School for Gifted Learning in Sanford, FL. There is a big push right now in our surrounding counties to bring digital learning and computer science access to all students so we were able to further this momentum by inviting schools to our event.



What advice would you give another educator planning a Hour of Code event? 


Be fearless. You do not have to have a computer science background or even ever have written a line of code to host an Hour of Code event. The organizers at the Hour of Code website have done a very good job of creating opportunities for all people at all skill levels to participate in the Hour of Code even if they have no access to technology. My advice is if you have an inkling that this is something that you would like to do, then just go out and do it. The advice that I give to future teachers is to go out and experience as many different opportunities and educational settings that they can because we do not always know where we will find our passion. Coincidentally, I registered as a whim at a children’s hospital and came across my passion serendipitously. 


Once you have decided to host an Hour of Code event, do not go it alone. Seek out others with shared interests who can help you. You can also write to tech companies or area educators and ask for help. I contacted Wonder Workshop and because of that initial outreach, they have so graciously donated their time and resources to our event. Again, be fearless.



How are students managed in terms of behavior? How do students stay focused as they attempt to meet the learning objectives of the event? 


As it turns out, behavioral management has become an afterthought for me whenever I am engaged with children in computer science activities. The children, whether they are 3-years-old or 21, are really and truly engrossed in what they are doing so I have not found it really necessary to do more than the norm in terms of anticipating and planning for behaviors during this event and others I have hosted like it. For those who are considering hosting an event or who are in fact hosting their first Hour of Code event this year, I will say that it is never a bad idea to have as many volunteers as you can, especially because different technologies and issues of connectivity can be fickle.  So having people around to make sure students are connected to the internet, that they are viewing the appropriate coding module, etc. will only be beneficial. 



Is there any focus on exposing ASD students to coding specifically? What’s in place for students who learn in unique ways?


For students with ASD and other students who learn in unique ways, we will have two different opportunities for them to participate and earn their Hour of Code certificate. The first way is that they can complete the modules from, including ones with themes ranging from Star Wars to Minecraft to Frozen and many others, with support from faculty and other students, including PIGE. They can also learn to code with Dash, a robot produced by Wonder Workshop, using apps on tablets and phones. 


Describe your experience researching education for children with critical illnesses. 


I think I can answer this best by way of vignette.


You can imagine yourself in this role. You walk into a brightly lit hospital room in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). The room has been well designed for children in a vivid palette of bright colors and natural maple furnishings. It is warm and pristine except for the pile of family belongings crowding the parent’s sleep away bed, and it is very, very loud. In the bed, partially obscured by two IV poles and various monitors keeping track of heart rate and oxygen saturation, sits a 10-year-old girl with Medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor found in the brain. Beginning at her left ear, a large, raised c-shaped scar is the only imperfection on her otherwise bald head, and you are reminded that her learning may be impeded by any number of neurocognitive or neurosensory problems. She gives a brief furtive glance in your direction. She was told you are coming. You say hello, calling her by name, and tell her how excited you are to get to work with her today on your favorite subject. You have to repeat yourself; fight to be heard. The 32-inch TV screen positioned above her bed plays cartoons on the Disney channel. This particular one is Doc McStuffins, an apparent favorite of the youngest sibling in the room who shrieks and claps with amusement at the various goings on in the show. 

Her mother and grandmother sit to the left of her bed, one in the bedside chair, the other perched on the wide windowsill. They carry on an excited conversation in Spanish. You understand none of it, but it is clear they will not be stopping to allow your lesson to take place in quiet. So you begin. You hand her the thick packet of practice problems her regular teacher faxed over to the hospital, each page the same. It’s hard to object when she tells you the work is boring. You coax her into talking to you about the first problem, but almost immediately a nurse enters the room to get her vitals for the hour. You’re going to lose her. She loves this nurse who calls her by her nickname and talks about the new cards, balloons, and gifts she has received since her last shift. When the nurse asks what you are working on things really go south. “Oh! I hate math. I was never good at it.” You think, “Thanks, that’s helpful,” but you persist. You are interrupted six more times within the hour: her oral chemotherapy is administered; her oncologist and team of residents stop in for rounds (math isn’t their “thing” either); she needs to use the restroom; her mom gets her lunch order; she thinks she may vomit, twice; and she cries when she is told she won’t be going home today because her white blood cell counts are still much too low. What little progress is made is meaningless. She hasn’t connected to the mathematics; she sees no value in it. You leave with her packet in hand, seven problems attempted, and none understood, not really. 

This is how it began for me. There were hundreds of children that I have met at various hospitals, and they are all telling the same story when it came to learning mathematics. They had been told in some way that mathematics was not for them or within their reach. 

Well you know their life expectancy is only 30, so their teachers decided a long time ago that it wasn’t important for them to learn stuff like multiplication facts. Math is only for the healthy kids.


And they saw no value in it. 

Well if I had to pick between doing math or getting my chemo, I’d pick chemo. I hate math that much. At least the chemo does something for me. 

I set out to research ways that that I could better both their immediate situations and their future prospects. I had an idea early on that I wanted to extend the work of Seymour Papert and use computer science to make mathematics meaningful and relevant for children. What I have found so far with the robotics is that there is almost this quality or aspect of magical thinking that is present when each child conceives of their first robot, whatever that might be, puppy, Mars rover, etc., and then starts to put together all of these discrete mathematical concepts that they have either previously known or are encountering with the robotics in order to bring that robot to life. Results from my research show significant gains in mathematical content knowledge and motivation to persevere in rigorous mathematical tasks.



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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