Coding competition at local school programs students for the future

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

The young competitors – dressed in green, red, blue and black representing their respective teams -- watched anxiously while their robots navigated the tracks created for them.

Some of the students could be seen clasping their hands together as if in prayer, while others appeared frozen with anticipation until their robot reached its destination.

Fourth-graders recently participated in a computer-coding competition at Bethlehem Elementary School in Locust Grove. L. to R.: Jadyn Dubenion and Brady Rogers. Special photo

By the time the students were done, each wore a proud smile, the kind that comes with the knowledge that they had done their best.

Fourth-graders at Bethlehem Elementary School who participated in “The 4 C’s of Coding” on May 24, worked in groups to demonstrate their skills in computer coding.

As 10-year-old Maya Flaggs prepared to join her teammates moments before the competition began, she said her newfound skills would benefit others while allowing her to use her creativity to the fullest.

“You can imagine anything in your head and you just create it through coding, and then people can enjoy it all over the world,” said Flaggs.

In particular, she explained the crucial nature of accuracy in putting her project together with her teammates.

“I’ve learned that during coding, if you mess one thing up, you’ll mess the whole thing up,” said Flaggs.

Students in four groups devised and implemented computer codes for the competition. Team members from each group laid down a road map, programmed a robot, and monitored how long it took for their robot to travel its course.

Each group focused their efforts on collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication, said their teacher, Andrea Blalock.

“What they’ve done in the course of a few months is, they’ve learned how to build robots and code robots,” she said. “They’ve built an obstacle course, and they’re going to take their robot through their tracks. The first person who can get their robot through in the least amount of time – and there’s other parameters as well – will win the trophy.”

Blalock added that the inaugural competition would help students gain skills they would need in the age of technology.

“The kids have to think critically, they have to be creative, they have to communicate,” she said. “Those are all skills that they need for the 21st century. You know, school’s a lot different than when we went to school. With the way technology is advancing, we really have to start teaching our kids to start thinking outside the box, to be creative. So, that was the whole premise behind starting this – to have them think at a higher level. The objective is to create jobs that haven’t even been created yet.”

The competition is part the school’s partnership with the Southern Company. Shawn Sweeney, telecommunications technician with the Southern Company, oversaw the hour-long competition and echoed Blalock’s thoughts on technology’s increasing relevance on the lives on young people.

“As technology advances, we’re going to use technology more and more,” he said. “At the Southern Company, we use technology quite a bit to provide a reliable and affordable electrical grid. So, it’s important to start the kids at a young age, teaching them theory of computer programming so that when they get to high school, they already know, basically, what they’re doing. They’re already familiar with it. Hopefully one day, they can come work for the Southern Company and use their skills in computer programming to build the Southern Company to be more competitive in the future.”

School officials and parents watched in suspense as students concentrated on the competition. Southern Company Telecom Supervisor Dennis Brown was a judge for the contest, along with Spencer O’Neal, lead pastor of Global Impact Christian Ministries.

Brown, judging the event for the first time, emphasized a number of key points he and O’Neal would focus on for the occasion.

“What we’re looking for in the judging is accuracy of the robot navigating the obstacle course, the time it takes for the robot to navigate, and any adjustments the kids have to make during the obstacle course competition,” said Brown.

When all was said and done, first-place honors for the competition went to the blue team consisting of Layla West, Roderick Horne, Matthew Solomon, Haley Yan, Nicholas Mehrjooya and Abrey Sams. Sams acknowledged that she was surprised her team won, but said she learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from coding is you have to work together with your teammates,” said Sams.

Aaryn Schmuhl, assistant superintendent of leadership services for Henry County Schools, was on hand to cheer the students on for the competition. He said Bethlehem Elementary, as a personalized-learning school, is focused on giving students “challenging, rigorous opportunities” to bolster their education.

Schmuhl praised Blalock for her efforts in collaborating with the Southern Company as a way to accomplish that goal through the competition.

“I’m just excited to see – and they’ve been working hard all year – the fruits of their labor, excited to see kids get excited about computers and programming and learning in a way that’s engaging and fun and a job skill that they’re going to be able to use as they go forward as well, even as fourth-graders,” said Schmuhl.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones was also in attendance for the competition. He marveled at the students’ abilities to learn skills they will need in the coming years.

“These kids are absolutely amazing -- the work that they’ve put into their projects, the time that it has taken for them to learn the very basics of programming,” said Jones. “In today’s economy, that is the foundation for everything they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. It’s truly a blessing to see kids at this age, working with robots and computers and programming.”