Travel the Trail: The Hour of Code

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The start of the Iditarod Trail on a Texas playground

To celebrate Computer Science Education Week, students around the world are participating in the Hour of Code.  This global event brings computer science into schools to allow students, for one hour, to learn basic programming and coding to nurture problem-solving skills, logic, and creativity.Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 7.28.15 AM

My class spent some time designing an Iditarod Trail course for students to travel using round Sphero robots.  What is a Sphero?  It is simply an app-enabled ball that students code or program to move.  It can jump, change colors, and roll in any direction up to 4.5mph.

Our robots represented an Iditarod dog team in the 2016 race.  Students used the free Sphero app for programming its movement along the course we created.  

I wanted my students to learn a little more about the Iditarod checkpoints, so we researched information on the Iditarod site about the route that will be taken for the 2016 race.  The race uses a northern route in even years and a southern route in odd years.  The race’s routes are actually part of The Iditarod National Historic Trail which was used in the early years when dog teams brought mail, supplies, and food to remote villages and brought out gold from the mining camps to the year-round, ice-free harbor of Seward.  The entire historic trail runs from Seward to Nome.  In later years, more checkpoints were added to a southern route to ease the burden on smaller villages during the race.  Each place has a unique history and story to tell.

Iditarod National Historic Trail System Map

The Official Map of the Iditarod Race

First, my students researched and learned a little about each checkpoint: how many people live there, its distance from Nome, the landscape and geography of the area, and even natural hazards mushers could face during the nearly 1,000 miles to Nome.  Student teams had to work together to program the Sphero to avoid dangerous moose crossings and then get back on the trail as quickly as possible.  I have a strong feeling it is much more difficult in real life for an Iditarod musher!

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Moose on the Loose!

A very important part of the STEM process is design and collaboration.  We spent time using our research of the route, geography, and checkpoints to draw out ideas for our Iditarod Trail course as accurately as we could, but we took some creative liberties just for fun.  Since Texas has a profound lack of snow, we rolled out white plastic runners from a local party store onto our field to make the trail, added poly-fil snow, and staked the checkpoints into the ground using wooden skewers.

My students had jobs during our race, while other students partnered up to program the Sphero along the trail and learn about each checkpoint as they rolled up to it.  Some hid behind box “mountains” and dropped snow on the musher’s team during a pretend avalanche.  No team has ever been injured in an avalanche in the history of the race, but traveling through Alaskan wilderness in the winter does bring risk.  If an avalanche were a concern, the route would be moved for the safety of the musher and the dogs by race officials.

The classroom teachers were given a bottle of white silly string to spray on teams during a surprise “blizzard” while they passed by.  A natural weather hazard was never enjoyed so much …by so many.

The Happy River Steps outside of the Finger Lake checkpoint on the way to Rainy Pass have fascinated my students all year.  In an earlier post, my students learned about the infamous steps when we created iron dog racers in our force and motion unit.  This challenging natural landform, a steep cliff of plunging benches, can make or break the dreams of a musher.  Teams descending the steps were viewed in online videos in class, and my students decided to dedicate a special place on our field to them.

A steep incline on our soccer field, worn away by years of erosion, almost perfectly represented the Happy River Steps.  Teams had to program and maneuver the Sphero robot over the rocky hills to make their way to the next checkpoint, Rainy Pass.

Computer science experience such as coding and programming are essential skills for a 21st century student and a perfect fit for the Hour of Code celebration.  This entire lesson can also easily be adapted into a IMG_0413wonderful physical education activity with gross motor challenges at each checkpoint.  Imagine push-ups at Elim, crab walking from McGrath to Takotna, skipping from Ruby to Galena, or passing a ball to a partner from Rohn to Nikolai.

Teachers can also print the checkpoint sheets and create a bulletin board to follow during the race in March.  The creative possibilities are endless.  The important thing is that students are learning about the unique features of each checkpoint and have an awareness and appreciation of the challenging geographic landscape that makes this the Last Great Race on Earth®.

Travel the Trail – The Hour of Code Lesson Plan

Checkpoint Sheets

The Hour of Code (you are leaving a secure site)

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With the year coming to a close, my class completed an art project using 2015 Iditarod calendars.  We cut them apart into strips and stretched them out on big sheets of paper.  We had great fun using our art skills to fill in the missing parts, creating interesting optical illusions.  We researched about the race and wrote about our pictures.  What a wonderful way to recycle an out-of-date calendar and learn about the race.

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Iditarod stretched art

The 2016 Winter Conference for Educators is an amazing week for teachers around the country to come together and learn best teaching practices surrounding the theme of the Iditarod.  Check out the Iditarod site for more information about this unique professional development opportunity.

I will be joined this year by a few talented teachers from my school, Eanes Elementary, here in Austin, Texas.  We will be sharing STEM and STEAM hands-on lessons based upon the Iditarod theme with conference attendees.  We hope to see you there!

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