Hooking the kids up to cool tech

Just before Thanksgiving, a handful of fifth graders from Sassarini Elementary School crowded into the Maker’s Lab, focused on a common goal. They wanted to see their DASH robots dance in Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, hitting the streets of New York — at least numerically. The parade was projected onto a screen and the robots were just pretending, but that didn’t stop the students from getting a very real experience of what it’s like to take part in one of the most iconic of America.

Meanwhile, at Flowery Elementary School, students cruised the canals of Venice in gondolas, traversed the sheer red cliffs of Utah’s Zion National Park, and even circled Jupiter – throughout the use of virtual reality. Today, the school library attracts students at recess who want to use new technology to play, while learning about the next great digital frontier.

Teaching was harder than ever during the pandemic when digital platforms became the norm for our students. Frustrating and inefficient, most students saw a decline in their academic performance, while many educators have left the field, creating disruption in our classrooms.

All of these recent stresses make DASH robots and VR headsets so important.

Students learn cutting-edge technology, exposure that will help them stay savvier as they grow in this increasingly digital world – plus, it’s fun. Children, especially primary school students, seem to be interested in these learning opportunities. And studies show that anything that makes education more attractive is a good thing.

“Building on the widely accepted belief that children learn best by doing or being, virtual reality has the ability to maximize learning by allowing students to ‘be’ or ‘do’ whatever they can imagine – without ever having to leave the classroom.” Teach Wire, an award-winning educational website, reported. “According to educational psychologists, we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear and 90% of what we do. Students are therefore more likely to retain information learned in an immersive environment during a virtual reality experience than in a more traditional lesson or classroom.

Such technology, unsurprisingly, can be prohibitively expensive in many areas. Here we are fortunate to have the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, which has been filling the gaps in our classrooms since 1993. It was their generosity that brought robots to Sassarini ($150 each, five of which are now on campus ) and virtual reality headsets at Flowery (purchased via a $1,000 grant). Teachers are allowed to apply Class Grants every year, and donors can browse requests and support the project that interests them the most.

The foundation and its donors have also funded a preschool for all, supported myriad arts programs, built libraries, and provided many school supplies, among dozens of other acts of kindness that make learning more accessible and fun. All of these ideas come from our teachers and school staff, those who see every day what children need to thrive.

While some opinion writers say overinvesting in early tech trends can be a waste of money, it’s hard not to be swayed by reports coming straight from our classrooms.

“This month, a fifth-grade student told me he would become an engineer because he’s good at solving problems,” said Danielle Wroblewski, the Sassarini teacher behind the DASH robot program. “And a third year student told me excitedly that he could debug seven bugs in his code. He was so proud of himself for being able to solve problems on his own and get the robots moving.

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