Eye on Education

June 24, 2014

Robots, 3-D design, video excite students at Sequoia Middle

A small robot in the back of a southeast Fresno classroom captivated a group of middle schoolers as it raced through an obstacle course popping a balloon, shooting fake missiles and moving wooden blocks.

This isn't a remote-controlled toy -- although it is fun, a few students add. It's education: The fruits of a technology project, come to life.

Students built and programmed the robot in Chris Fuge's "Exploring Technology" elective at Sequoia Middle School , where building robots, designing with 3-D printers and making videos are all commonplace.

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For many of his students, Fuge's emphasis on exploration is exciting. They talk about learning technology as if it's art, not sequences of digital coding.

"You can make computers do what is in your imagination," student Cirilo Ordaz, 13, said.

"This class allows more freedom," Dara Kreng, 13, said while working with a 3-D printer to design and create objects out of plastic. "It lets me express my creativity."

Fuge said he tries to stay away from traditional teaching: "Step one, do this. Step two, do this ... " His role in the classroom is more akin to a facilitator, he says.

Fuge, a science teacher, has been teaching a technology elective for the past five years. He has been interested in technology from a young age. Fuge said he taught himself most of what he knows about computers through experimentation and encourages students to embrace that same kind of freedom.

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He tells students not to worry about "messing stuff up" on the computer -- most mistakes are easily fixed with an "un-do" command.

Fuge also tries to connect what students are learning in class with real-world applications.

Those connections have excited some students, like Cirilo. The 13-year-old said he has learned how computers are used "to help other people -- that's what I want to do."

Technology is being used to design limbs for amputees, build cars that drive themselves, and reduce pollution, which "can help polar bears," Cirilo added cheerfully.

Another learning incentive in Fuge's class: Fresno Unified School District's annual Tournament of Technology , which Fuge co-directs.

"The tournament is a great motivator because they know there's other schools, other teams," he said. "It's more of a sports approach to the classroom, where they are preparing for competition instead of just doing an assignment."

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Fuge's class won the tournament in 2012 and 2013. He said more than 500 students participated in the 2014 tournament -- the first year judging was split into different categories, including robotics, design and video. This year, Fuge's class placed second overall, first in design, second in video and third in robotics. Edison Computech Middle School took first place.

"What I've noticed, especially with robotics, is in the past I've had students who were getting all Fs in their other classes and yet they build the best robot that wins the tournament," Fuge said.

"It's kind of just a reminder to everyone that really any kid can be successful. You just have to get them excited about something and get them plugged in," he added.

But getting students plugged into cyberspace isn't always so easy. The neighborhood surrounding Sequoia is largely low-income, Fuge said. Some of his students don't have a computer at home and don't even know how to use a computer mouse when they start his technology class.

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That can be challenging, but bringing students up to speed is rewarding for Fuge. He wants them to know there are careers available in technology -- which many don't realize.

And there are a growing number of tools available to teachers to more easily incorporate technology in the classroom, he said.

A big one: classroom management software. Using this software, Fuge can see all of his students' computer screens and instantly turn them off -- a handy function to make sure students are paying attention to his direction in front of class.

Fuge also can remotely access their laptops to help them solve problems they may run into with class projects.

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This fall, Fuge will be teaching only technology classes, replacing his schedule of teaching science in the morning and technology in the afternoon. Walking into the principal's office earlier this year, Fuge worried he would be told he had to go back to teaching all science.

"When he (the principal) said all tech, I realized that's what I wanted, really."

Fuge likes sharing the newest digital devices and software with his students -- maybe even as much as they like to learn it.

"The kids that traditionally don't do well at school have often done really well in our technology projects. It's really cool to get them excited about school."

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