Central Jr. High School
Bryan Harston, J.D.
Engineering & Robotics Teacher
The Challenge: Continuing in Context of COVID
Bryan Harston teaches Engineering and Robotics at Central Junior High School in Euless, Texas. On March 6th, 2020, he waved goodbye to his robotics students as they left for what was to be a week-long Spring Break. But when COVID-19 led to nationwide school closures, Bryan – like millions of educators across the country – was thrust into the biggest challenge of his career. “At first, we were told school would be closed an extra two weeks,” Bryan said, “but before long, it became clear we were going to be online-only for the duration. I knew I had to find a way to continue robotics instruction… without the robots.”
Central Junior High is home to HEB ISD’s only middle school STEM Academy, and Bryan teaches the only 7th-grade introductory robotics class in the district. It’s a one-semester class, offered in both fall and spring semesters. Under normal circumstances, the compressed
timeframe doesn’t pose a hardship. “We’re very fortunate in that we have enough LEGO EV3 robots in my classroom to go around. Students each have a robot to themselves during class, so they do their own programming and testing. This 1-to-1, hands-on approach allows the kids to learn much more quickly than if several kids had to share one robot.”
When school shutdowns materialized, Harston’s three robotics classes (some 75 students) had already spent eight weeks learning to program LEGO EV3 robots using the LEGO Mindstorms Education software platform. But without a robot in each student’s hands, there was no way to continue building on all that progress… for several reasons.
First, while the number of EV3 robots in Bryan’s classroom permitted a 1:1 student-to-robot ratio during class, his EV3 inventory was nowhere near the 75 units required for everyone to continue working with a robot at home. Second, at that time the school district had
not yet adapted to fully 1:1 computing. The only way to get computing devices in the hands of all secondary students was to distribute hundreds of campus Chromebooks.
“The Chromebooks represented a brick wall in terms of using the LEGO Mindstorms software,” Harston said. “While there is a sort of watered-down variant of Mindstorms that works on Chromebooks, it bears almost no resemblance to the standard Mindstorms platform. Everything is different on the Chromebook version. From the look and feel of the interface, to the extremely-limited functionality of the
program itself, it was clear that I could not finish the school year using Mindstorms. And even if I could, what could I do for the actual robot hardware?
Harston began searching online robotics training systems. What he found was systems that were either so simplistic that they would have represented a huge step backward for his students, or more sophisticated systems that were prohibitively expensive. “Even if I’d had the funding for one of the ‘emulator’ systems out there, the district had – out of necessity – put a freeze on all purchasing for the remainder of the school year. So even if I’d found a capable and compatible tool, I couldn’t have purchased it.”
What were Bryan and his students to do?
CoderZ Just in Time
Through an outreach program, CoderZ made its virtual robotics platform freely available to schools through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Bryan found in CoderZ precisely the kind of platform he needed to maintain continuity of learning. “The first thing that caught my eye was a great-looking, accurately-rendered 3D model of a LEGO EV3 on the screen,” he said. “That stopped me in my tracks. I hoped against hope that this might be something different.”
As he clicked through to learn more about whether CoderZ might be a viable solution, Bryan’s interest deepened when he learned about the deep working relationship between CoderZ and Amazon Future Engineers, a philanthropic initiative that promotes STEM, coding, and robotics in education. “As I read through the materials on the CoderZ website, I discovered two things that absolutely knocked me out,” Bryan said. “First, CoderZ incorporates a full-motion 3D simulation – in real time – of the LEGO EV3 robot running your code as soon as you hit the ‘Run’ button. Second, as a fully web-based platform, it was compatible with any web-connected computer, Chromebooks included.”
But the deciding factor was CoderZ offering the product for free through the end of the school year. “With purchasing shut down along with our campus, CoderZ’s offer made them the Golden Ticket: a tool that I could adopt for teaching immediately, at no cost, and
which would work for all my students regardless of the computing hardware they had at home,” Bryan said.
Engagement, No Matter What
Harston’s school district is back in session, offering hybrid instruction for 2020-2021. This underscores the importance of easy, equitable access to a learning environment made for robotics. Engagement is key to Bryan and his fellow STEM teachers. “Online instruction makes it easy for individual students to check out mentally. But at my school, our mission is ‘World-Class Engagement,’ and that’s what I need to achieve.” Bryan states. “Purchasing CoderZ for the 2020-2021 school year was an easy decision.” He cites several reasons why the adoption of CoderZ has led to greater engagement. First among these is the “fun, almost game-like environment. It’s visually engaging, cleverly designed, and realistic … and it really grabs kids’ attention.” Harston also reiterated how CoderZ’s virtual platform – web-based and Chromebook compatible – avoids potential hardware problems for a huge percentage of our students.”
Bryan, along with millions of other teachers looking for the best way to serve students in these trying times, are innovating daily to drive engagement and impact learning. His move to CoderZ meant that he and his students could move forward with confidence.
Now that’s meeting the challenge head-on.
About Central Jr. High School
Part of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (Texas), Central Junior High School is unique in many respects … both within the district, and in Texas. Of the five junior high schools in the HEB ISD, CJH is the only junior high that offers programs in World Languages (Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic), Orchestra, and STEM Engineering and Robotics beginning in 7th grade. More than 1,200 students – many of whom transfer from other campuses — participate in these programs. Niche.com ranks HEB ISD as the most diverse public school district in Texas, and CJH is proud to be the most diverse public middle school in Texas.