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Whitlow Elementary brings coding lessons to the gym with new STEM education tool
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Students run back and forth across the gym, stomping on the floor buttons to make sounds, create colorful lights and counting their points as they play competitive games. Photo for the FCN.

Splash! Sploosh! Zing!

Sounds and colorful lights have started to spring from the gym at Whitlow Elementary School this year thanks to Unruly Splats, a STEM education tool that helps students learn to code while having fun and staying active.

With the program, students can use a tablet to code floor buttons to light up, make certain sounds or keep track of points when they stomp on them while playing games like relay races or whack-a-mole. Students can even use the technology to design creative games of their own.

Whitlow is the first school in Forsyth County to use the splats thanks to robotics teacher Kathy Brott and physical education teacher Alex Evans teaming up to combine their curriculums and offer coding lessons in the gym to fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Evans said STEM Coach Amanda Meadows originally had the idea to bring the splats to the school. She helped the pair apply for a grant through the Forsyth County Education Foundation to fund the project, which they received this year.

The two began using the splats in the classroom in January, creating splat sessions where students could come in for coding lessons and games in the gym. At first, Evans said introducing STEM into the PE curriculum was a bit challenging.

“That was the biggest hurdle for me was trying to learn the foreign language of coding,” Evans said. “I just had to come at it as it’s something brand new; it’s my homework and I just need to try and figure it out with the kids.”

But Evans said that as he learns coding alongside the students, he asks them to show him how to code the games not only to give them a chance to show off their skills, but also to give them more confidence in their work.

“That has really helped the kids out and given them a new mindset of, ‘Oh, I know something Coach Evans doesn’t,’” Evans said. “It’s been a fun curve to watch how the kids grow.”

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Students jump and run around as they play a game using the Unruly Splats. Photo for the FCN.

Brott said that students are also learning more quickly than they expected. She said that students in the last coding session designed a new game and programmed the Unruly Splats in 20 minutes.

They have also since coded and played a game called Mission Impossible in which they moved around the gym, jumping on cones, noodles, and other objects to avoid touching the floor. Another student favorite is called Rock, Paper, Scissors Showdown — a game where players jump through a set of hula hoops to the other side where they stomp on a splat to record their score.

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A student uses a device to code Unruly Splats to create a new game using the floor buttons. Photo for the FCN.

“They get a kick out of that,” Evans said. “It makes a sound and lights up. And so that’s been a fun way [to add it to] something we already do in the gym.”

Not only are students learning to code more quickly, but they love the program. The students can play games using newfound coding skills, and they can take charge of their own activities and learning.

Earlier in the year, Brott said Whitlow’s students were asked to give a quote to the yearbook about their favorite part of the school year so far, and one student immediately pointed to Brott’s and Evans’ class.

“This student was just mesmerized by the fact that we could have coding and PE together,” Brott said. “She just thought that was the greatest thing in her entire year that she could combine those two things.”

STEM has always been an important focus at Whitlow, where cross-curricular programs have been created to help bring STEM to various classrooms. The school has a Georgia State STEM Certification and was the first elementary school in the state to earn the internationally recognized Cognia STEM Certification, according to a press release.

But Brott said both students and teachers have been surprised to see how well STEM and PE curriculums can work together.

“The combination of PE and coding is just one example of how our teachers creatively insert STEM concepts every day, in every subject,” Principal Lynne Castleberry said. “When we started our STEM journey, we saw an overall improvement in test scores for students who were underperformers in the past. That’s because prioritizing STEM means prioritizing student-driven instruction and hands-on, collaborative learning.”

Brott said the PE and STEM curriculum combo also showed students how STEM can truly apply to all parts of life — including playtime.

“If you ask a student who hasn’t been with Coach Evans, they are going to say there is no STEM in PE,” Brott said. “He has finally taught them that there is plenty of STEM there, but this just adds another level of STEM to what they’re doing with their active play.”

Seeing how STEM can apply to other parts of their lives, Brott said students have also become more interested in coding and computer sciences. She has seen more interest especially in students who would usually rather be outside or in the gym running around than in the classroom.

Bryanne Leeming, founder and CEO of Unruly Studios, the makers of Unruly Splats, said a huge reason for introducing the technology into the classroom was to show students who normally are not interested in STEM that coding can be for everyone.

“Computer science education is often intimidating and sedentary. We want to flip those stereotypes on their head and inspire kids to try coding who didn’t think it was for them,” Leeming said.

Brott and Evans said the Forsyth County Education Foundation provided funding for this school year, but they hope to find funding to continue using the splats for years to come.

Overall, Brott said she believes the students get a lot out of the program, learning coding, growing confident in their skills and creating games and experiences they will always remember.

Students play a game using Unruly Splats, programmable floor buttons which helps kids learn to code and have fun in the gym. Photo for the FCN.