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The Race is a turtle racing game that was created by the fourth and fifth grade students at Napa Street Elementary. The assignment was to create a game in which cars, animals, or people race each other. Students were expected to define a clear starting and finishing line, create a startup script to place all contestants at the starting line, create a race script to automatically start the race, advance all participants at a random pace towards the finishing line, and announce the winner when the finishing line is reached. Students used MicroWorld EX to create their projects. In order to be able to simulate random speed, I led a discussion on the speeds they encounter when looking at real cars on the road. This led to the discovery that cars don’t drive the same speed from moment to moment, as well as from car to car. As the concept of speed with all its implications started sinking in, I introduced randomness in programming and the relevant command in Logo. Students also learned about coordinates (for the startup procedure), conditionals, such as: “if..then”. or in its MicroWorlds format: “When this..Do that”, as well as how to create a procedure and learn to execute it by assigning it to a button. Throughout the entire project, students were highly engaged and enjoyed creating their game. Their pride and enjoyment became clearly apparent during the testing phase, when they handed their projects to their peers to test and comment on their work.
In these projects students always demonstrate an increased readiness to learn complex programming and science concepts as part of a real-life situation they need to solve. The idea of designing their own game—similar to games they are used to playing—and having their peers play it, makes it a challenge that is all worthwhile taking. As an educator, witnessing their level of focus, commitment, excitement, interest, and understanding was one of those unique rewarding experiences that teachers like having. In preparing for projects like these, I usually lead the students through a discussion of the issues embedded in their project and help them come-up with their own conclusions by guiding them through available research. As the need arises, I point students’ attention to programming concepts that can help them solve their immediate problem. This guarantees that students don’t feel overwhelmed with a barrage of programming commands they can’t find a need for and therefore can’t understand. It is amazing to see how need opens up deeper channels of understanding just because students can find a justification for learning it. One of the most rewarding experiences for the students and for me is the testing phase. Like real-life professionals they take their peers comments very seriously and become really proud when they get a compliment from them. An expression of satisfaction and enjoyment by a friend playing their game is the ultimate reward that a student can get for the effort applied in developing the game.
These projects are as rewarding to my students as they are for me and therefore are worth repeating. The entire practice of project-based learning is quite new and the process of perfecting teacher roles and student practices is still evolving. As this practice becomes more prevalent, I see students becoming much more independent in setting their project goals and development practices, while teachers’ roles get more fine-tuned to apply the correct amount of intervention when needed.