El Círculo Familiar: Programming Robots is a Family Activity

“Mama, look at how I make the robot move!”
“Papa, let me show you how to make the robot turn.”

First- and second-graders were the computer science experts at University of Southern California when 35 families gathered last weekend to face two dozen robotics challenges. Over 225 children have been learning all year to code and program robots in the classrooms of nine Boyle Heights teachers involved in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering program called BOTS, for Building Opportunities with Teachers in Schools. And for four Saturdays in March, the families of 27 of those BOTS students have also learned how to code and use the engineering design process thanks to the El Círculo Familiar program, a collaboration between the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, PBS SoCal, the Critical Media Project, Sheridan Street Elementary School and USC Viterbi Adopt-a-Student, Adopt-a-Teacher. Finally, at USC for a culminating event, those parents could see how much their children had learned from their BOTS teachers and also apply their own, new coding skills to program the Sphero robots used in their children’s BOTS classes.

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VAST's Hannah Hayes and a St. Odilia student.


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PhD Student Justin Clough has volunteered all year.

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Ms. Torres (Sheridan) & PhD Student Tricia Chaffey encourage students.

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Students and volunteers solve mazes.


Seeing oneself as capable of using computer science is an important milestone in acquiring 21st century skills, even for people who do not aspire to a career in computers or robotics. With robots and artificial intelligence already shaping all aspects of contemporary life, digital fluency is crucial. Yet not all of the Latinx immigrant parents who live in Boyle Heights work with computers, nor do they know people who are computer scientists or roboticists; this can make it more difficult for some to recognize the value of digital skills for their children. While computers and video games can be sources of distraction, a slight shift in emphasis to educational games can foster computational thinking in children and open up career opportunities for adolescents. TV and movies hardly ever depict Latinx people as robotics experts, a fact explored by the families along with Dr. Alison Trope, Professor or Media Studies in the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications. Professor Trope is Director of the USC Critical Media Project; together with her Ph.D. students, the families participated in activities that challenge stereotypes which fail to depict Latinx communities or girls as technologically empowered. For some of the parents, El Círculo Familiar is the first opportunity to imagine that their children could find their way into college and solid careers through proficiency in computer science.


When today’s first- and second-grade students graduate from high school in 2029, the world will be so wired, automated, and networked that people without computational skills will be at a distinct disadvantage. El Círculo Familiar aims to help the families cross that digital divide, using collaborative play so families learn together. El Círculo Familiar started with four Saturday “playshops” (as opposed to workshops) where children and parents complete projects to recognize that they are makers, that coding with Scratch Jr. is actually fun and easy, and that trial and error are keys to success for computer programmers. Provided by PBS SoCal and led by Sandra Cruz and Pablo Aguirre, the PBS Playshops used the Ready to Learn Parent Academy curriculum based on PBS KIDS STEM resources. Each family that attended the four workshops was rewarded with a PBS Playtime Tablet loaded with educational games.


Connecting the new skills to future possibilities for the BOTS students came on Saturday, March 30, when the BOTS students invited their families to USC to program robots together. While a majority of the families attending had also completed the El Círculo Familiar training, the others are invited to participate in the second cohort for another 27 families of BOTS students, launching on April 24. At USC, the BOTS students showed their parents, brothers, and sisters how much they had learned from their BOTS teachers –

most of whom were also there to connect with the parents and drive home the value of digital fluency. Principal Antonio Amparan of Sheridan Street Elementary, a lead partner in both the BOTS and El Círculo Familiar programs, emphasized in both English and Spanish why these skills and also their families’ presence at USC were so important. “Too many Latino children don’t make it to college, and even those who do often do not finish,” he told the parents. “We all need to encourage these children to attend college and to develop their computational thinking skills.” Also offering words of praise to the families was Ms. Sima Perez-Saravia, Principal at St. Odilia School.


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Ms. Luna, Principal Perez-Saravia and Ms. Garcia
from St. Odilia School (L-R)

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Ms. Gomez, Principal Amparan, Ms. Lopez and Ms. Torres from Sheridan St. Elementary School (L-R)

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Mr. Umana, Ms. Montijo and Ms. Andereck
from Murchison St. Elementary School (L-R)


Teachers who have spent the last nine months in the BOTS monthly trainings also led the robotics challenges at USC on March 30. From St. Odilia School came Ms. Maria Garcia (1st grade teacher) and Ms. Desiree Luna (2nd grade); from Sheridan Street Elementary were second-grade teachers Ms. Melissa Torres, Ms. Anita Lopez, and Ms. Tania Gomez; and from Murchison Street Elementary came Ms. Andriana Montijo and Ms. Ann Anderek (both 1st grade teachers), and Mr. Joseph Umaña (2nd grade). These teachers have been participating in monthly trainings since August so they themselves could learn coding through Code.org’s Computer Science Fundamentals curriculum and robotics using an original curriculum developed by the robotics students and staff of USC Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher. Over a dozen USC students and staff members have collaborated at every step of the way to empower teachers and their students in this goal, including Ph.D. student volunteers Justin Clough, Gautum Salhotra, Jackson Killian, and Tricia Chaffey.


The BOTS curriculum is currently being developed for submission to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as an official course for teachers in August, 2019. LAUSD Local District East will be the BOTS partner in the coming academic year, under the direction of East Superintendent Frances Baez with the support of STEAM Coordinator Craig Sipes and Technology Dr. David Billett. Families will be able to continue their robotics play over the summer at the East Los Angeles Weingart YMCA. Next year, the BOTS program will also be supported by numerous additional partners, including Mr. LeRoy Nelson, the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, the Los Angeles Region Chamber of Commerce, and more.


While the future of robotics in Boyle Heights is set in the BOTS schools, the purpose of El Círculo Familiar is to make sure that computer science becomes more than a subject in school, but is a skill that can be shared by a whole family. Robotics and computational thinking already shape our society in so many ways, and the families of Boyle Heights are a key part of the ecosystem supporting this digital literacy.



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All the volunteers and staff who helped create and run the challenges.


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Sheridan St. Elementary School teacher Ms. Torres and students think together.

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Proud families with certificates


Photo credits: Joseph Nakhost and Rick Bolton.


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