Slater shows off C.H.I.P., a computer that fits in the palm of your hand.

Sixth-Grade Students Teach Technology, Learn Leadership

When West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) sixth-grade teacher Aaron Witt assigned his students classroom leadership roles, he never expected they would end up talking to the Iowa governor’s office or working with the world’s first $9 computer.

Inspired by the Leader in Me student leadership development model, he had each student fill out a survey at the beginning of the school year about their interests.

Layne Slater and Carson Copple checked “technology” and became Witt’s classroom’s technology leaders, responsible for organizing classroom technology and managing class social media.

Copple and Slater set up a Play-Doh keyboard using Makey-Makey, an interactive keyboard kit.

Copple and Slater set up a Play-Doh keyboard using Makey-Makey, an interactive keyboard kit.

They also persuaded Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to kick off the school’s recent Hour of Code activities with a press conference at Jordan Creek Elementary. In addition, the two sixth-graders led Hour of Code programming sessions with younger students.

“It was a big event for them,” Witt said. “It was a neat opportunity to put them in a leadership position to teach something the governor’s office had just finished hyping to the kids.”

Slater and Copple invited the governor, as well as the mayor of West Des Moines and every presidential candidate, to their Hour of Code assembly. The governor’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) council decided it was a good way to kick off Computer Science Education Week.

Slater and Copple pull up Pac-Man, a vintage game made new with developing technologies.

Slater and Copple pull up vintage Pac-Man, to use with their new keyboard.

To help organize the event, the Slater and Copple took part in their first conference call, during a weekday lunch. It did not occur to them that getting to talk with the governor’s office was out of the ordinary; they considered it one of their duties as technology leaders. They were more surprised by their fellow students as they taught kindergartners and first- through third-graders throughout the day.  

“I liked how they listened a lot more than you would think,” Layne Slater said. “They all liked it and wanted to learn more.”

It is difficult to imagine not wanting to learn more from Slater or Copple, whose enthusiasm for technology is infectious. During a recent presentation to the West Des Moines Community Schools Board of Education, they were eager to answer questions about keyboards they made out of Play-Doh and bananas using Makey-Makey, an interactive keyboard kit. They also use Google Cardboard, goggles that pair with a smartphone to let the user experience virtual reality.

Slater and Copple are also passionate about C.H.I.P., the world’s first $9 computer. Witt contributed to the Kickstarter campaign at the end of last school year to help fund the production of C.H.I.P. and received one of the first models.

“When C.H.I.P. showed up, it became a pet project for them,” Witt said. “I basically gave it to them and said, ‘Figure this out.’”

The computer, which is just a bit larger than a standard USB drive, came blank at the time. They had to “flash” it, or add an operating system (OS), with help from Witt, other programmers, and the Internet.

“The first month or so, we figured out how to turn it on and how to write some code to it, but it didn’t do much,” Copple said. “It wasn’t like a real computer yet.”

Witt compared C.H.I.P. to an infant: full of potential, but in need of direction. Once it had a working OS, the students were able to teach it how to connect to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. They are still pursuing their goal of turning it into a Chromebook equivalent. This may take some sophisticated programming, but the technology leaders were not discouraged.

“Sometimes computers can cost a lot of money, and these only cost $9,” Slater said. “This way, you can get a computer and the knowledge you need to build a computer.”

Witt was not surprised by their enthusiasm. He sees technology leadership as an interactive way for his students to learn about the technology all around them.

“When I was a kid, computer science wasn’t threaded into absolutely everything,” Witt said. “These kids have had technology in their hands since the first day they can remember.”

The students have also started to internalize the importance of technology skills. They enjoy programming, but both sixth-graders also brought up the job market when asked about the benefits of learning to code. They know it will help them as they head into a future filled with computers and fast-changing technology.

“Coding is pretty fun,” Copple said. “It’s hard to learn, but the limits are endless.”