Middle school students from across the state programmed robots and built lemon batteries and solar-powered phone chargers Thursday and Friday at Iowa School for the Deaf.
It was the school’s first-ever STEM Days event, and it was opened up to a limited number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from other schools.
Attendees included 14 ISD middle-schoolers and 13 from Council Bluffs, Omaha, Des Moines, Ottumwa and other schools, said Cynthia Angeroth, outreach coordinator at ISD. Those from outside the local area stayed in the ISD dormitories Thursday night.
“We set this up for our students, and we realized what a wonderful opportunity it was,” said Justin Cyboron, middle school teacher at ISD, who planned it in partnership with the school’s other two middle school teachers, Ashley Villaverde and Lori Horn.
Experts from Deaf Kids Code and the National Technology Institute for the Deaf joined ISD staff members to lead the two-day workshop.
Students did code for small “Dash” robots Thursday using a Blockly app, said Kate Kasal, library and technology director at ISD.
“The challenge is to program the little robots to go through the maze,” she said.
That involved setting the robot to go a certain number of centimeters, then turn a certain number of degrees in the right direction, then go forward a certain distance before making the next turn, Kasal said.
Bobby Valdez Tarpein, a student at Edward Stone School in Burlington, said he had worked with robots a couple times but had never programmed one to go through a maze. He set a robot to flash red and blue using a “repeat forever” setting, then got down to business working on the maze.
In another room, students made batteries by hooking zinc and copper wires to a lemon, said DJ of NTID.
“The zinc already wants to receive electrons, and the copper wants to give electrons,” he said. “The lemon just provides the acid. The lemon is just the conductor.”
Students benefit from the social opportunities, as well as the projects, DJ said.
“For them, it’s not just education, it’s a chance to meet their peers,” he said.
Shireen Hafeez of West Lafayette, Indiana, founded Deaf Kids Code after watching her son, who is deaf/hard of hearing, try to fit in at mainstream schools.
“Though we have so many more supports than we did, we still have not impacted the high unemployment rate of people with disabilities,” she said.
Hafeez saw technology as a way to break the cycle.
“Over 70 percent of new jobs in today’s market are in computing and technology,” she said. “Computing and technology are extremely accessible tools for deaf and hard of hearing because, if you’re computing, that’s a universal language. The majority of people who are deaf or hard of hearing do not have intellectual disabilities.”
Hafeez’ primary message as she talks to deaf students at workshops across the country is to believe in themselves.
“’Why not you?’” she asks them.
“My first principle is, the digital age is the great equalizer,” Hafeez said. “My organization is challenging the status quo.”
Deaf Kids Code started as a small local effort and quickly became a national organization, she said. It is now a national partner with NTID.
Another reason Hafeez believes Deaf people can be as good as or better than hearing people at technology is, they have to constantly adapt to the hearing culture, which teaches them to be problem-solvers.
Cyboron hopes ISD can make STEM Days an annual event.
“This is part of our effort here to provide STEM education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students across the state,” he said.