TNCS Elementary Saves the Holidays!


You know “Dash-er”. . . But Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, et al. are still out playing reindeer games. 

It’s true, folks . . . Santa very nearly was not going to be coming to town in 2015 due to the weather-related transportation problems that tend to befall him in el niño years. When this has happened before, Rudolph always swooped in just in time. But this year, Santa has grounded Rudolph until that stubborn reindeer obeys orders to switch his nose to an energy-efficient lightbulb (he’s been asked yearly since 2012, for goodness sake). So, with the programming aid of The New Century School elementary students, here comes “Dash-er” to the rescue, less furry than traditional reindeer, but much more compliant when clear commands are issued.

This all started back in the fall when TNCS dad David Broiles approached TNCS Stem Teacher Dan McGonigal with the idea to celebrate Computer Science Education Week (December 7th–13th) by participating in the Global Hour Of Code project. “We started talking about coding and robotics,” said Mr. Broiles, “and [Mr. McGonigal] was receptive and willing to test out some different robots that were kid friendly and supported block programming utilizing mobile apps that connected to the robots over bluetooth.”

After narrowing the field to a robot named “Dash,” explained Mr. Broiles, Mr. McGonigal developed a curriculum for the kids, which became the “Dash-ing All the Way” challenge. Said Mr. Broiles: “He did an amazing job. Prior to the challenge, Mr. McGonigal expertly framed/briefed the challenge to the kids and they had a great time with the challenge and were really engaged the whole time. It was a big success!”

TNCS elementary students began practice programming during Computer Science Education Week in preparation for the big challenge to occur on December 17th, just before the Holiday Break. Their mission was to save the holidays by measuring out a route and programming their robot to extricate Santa from a massive blizzard. “Dash-er,” as the robot aptly became known for this challenge, responds to basic verbal commands but must be custom-programmed to execute anything more complex. TNCS students used apps like “Wonder” and “Blockly” to provide their robo-reindeer with step-by-step instructions to plot his course.

tncs-elementary-hour-of-code-week-challengeBut first they had to map it out themselves, using precise measurements, as well as test the accuracy of their commands on each other by physically navigating the course and making necessary adjustments to and adding or omitting codes accordingly.

Said Mr. McGonigal: “It was an amazing project for the kids. I think they really showed perseverance and cooperation when working through this challenge among other important 21st-century skills, like solving problems. They had to consider a lot of programming commands as well as some math concepts, such as metric measurement (because programming requires universal language), division and multiplication (because Dash-er had to cover a certain distance but could only proceed in small increments at a time), and geometry (e.g., angles), in order to be successful completing this challenge. They also had to continuously make improvements to their programs.”


David Broiles, TNCS Dad and IT Security Manager for the Army Research Laboratory, helps students adjust their programs to get Dash-er up to speed.

Mr. McGonigal credits Mr. Broiles for initiating this fantastic project that his students so clearly enjoyed as well as for providing the Dash-ers and other equipment for the students’ use in addition to hands-on assistance and advice the day of the challenge.

In the end, all teams successfully completed or came very close to completing the challenge by getting Dash-er all the way through the course shown below. Team Elves and Team Kitty were the first to prevail. Earlier that day, Team Dashing through the Snow in a Camaro Chevrolet (great name, kids) and Team Ravens were on the cusp of breakthrough before time ran short.

Amidst a happy background din of toddler gym-time and the odd philosophical debate about Santa’s authenticity, see their truly amazing progress in more or less sequential fashion in the short clips below.

Why code? The language of computers is arguably the world language. In the near future, not knowing it will be akin to being illiterate. Moreover, so-called “computational thinking” is truly a 21st-century skill in that it not only combines mathematics and logic, but it also potentially open ups a new way of thinking. Approaching a large, complex problem (e.g., extricate Santa from a blizzard) by chunking it into stepwise smaller problems (e.g., commands such as “move forward 80 cm and repeat × 3”) allows efficient problem-solving that can be abstracted into models and then applied back out to the real world. Both multilingualism and creative problem-solving are skills that TNCS strives to instill in students to give them solid footing in the world.

You saved the 2015 holidays, TNCS elementary students, now it’s on to saving the world!

Courtesy of Mr. Broiles, here are two more videos for your viewing pleasure! The first shows Mr. McGonigal explaining the challenge and demonstrating just how students executed it. The second shows a beautifully programmed Dash-er completing the course and saving Santa! 

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