September 21

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Teacher Showcase: Coding Chemistry with Lauren Stewart

Lauren Stewart’s voice drifted through the end of D Hall at Northview, her volume raised a bit to compete with the murmur of students anxiously awaiting the break between eighth and ninth periods in this double-block chemistry class. She was introducing the next activity, which would begin after the break, an activity where students experimented with coding. Coding, she explained, was remarkably powerful and a growing career field that high school students might wish to explore. Her students half-listened, polite, but unengaged. Fast forward ten minutes later, and those same drifting students were chattering excitedly, scrutinizing their Chromebook screens and following Lauren’s lead as she guided them through the world of V Python, a simple coding language being used today to model in three dimensions. It might as well have been a different class altogether. What happened? Lauren gave these students the power to experiment, create, and collaborate in a simple intellectual sandbox, the world of code.

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Lauren Stewart demonstrates the V Python-created particle on her SmartBoard.

Lauren planned a coding activity today as an enrichment lesson, supplementing her regular chemistry instruction. The sequence was straightforward. Using Chromebooks, students would log into an online coding site called glowscript.org. There, they would create a public folder for projects. Then, they would copy and paste the URL for that public folder as an answer to a Google Classroom question, giving Lauren a complete and accessible list of all student folders instantly. Once shared, students would begin their first project, modeling particles to exhibit differences in density. The rest of the class period involved Lauren walking students through the coding process, helping them build the first line of code and challenging them to use a small amount of knowledge to build more and more.

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Four students. Five Chromebooks. One student has grabbed another’s to troubleshoot a code problem.

When the students saw their first particle modeled on the screen in 3-D, the spark of engagement was undeniable. Juniors and seniors that are so often immune to the infection of learning smiled and laughed, excited at what they had created with a single line of code. Lauren then challenged them to create a second particle a distance from the first, and most students faced their first roadblock as the second particle did not appear. They reexamined their code, trying to find the problem.

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Lauren’s second challenge is met here with two particles created.

And this is when the class truly became exceptional. Lauren arranges her room by tables, explaining that she does not feel comfortable teaching in rows. Four desks make a table, and the students’ seats change based on the project. At these tables, students craned over to examine the code of other students. Many offered help to those having difficulty creating the second particle. One student, successful immediately, spent his time helping those not only at his own table, but at other tables. Chromebooks started passing along as students collaborated to fix the code and make the particle appear.

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Lauren’s students float freely to help and learn.

All the while, Lauren floated about the room, helping individual students and calling further challenges to everyone. At her call, students added to the code so that one particle became two particles a distance apart. Then, students manipulated that distance. Then, they created a third particle. Then, a fourth. The four particles formed a square. Then, four more appeared, creating a second layer. Screens showed particles shrinking and expanding, changing colors, and merging into each other as students played excitedly. Each student was engaged, and the time flew.

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Coding and pink go well together!

You might ask why a chemistry teacher was leading a lesson in coding. It’s a fair question, but only if you see coding as the objective of the lesson, rather than a tool used for another objective. Scientists use computer modeling to explore every realm of science. Lauren is helping her students master coding so that they can model different densities of substances. She has decided that her high school students should act as real scientists act, using computers to investigate the substance of our reality in ways our eyes never can.
The success was obvious. Students forgot that they were learning and practicing a tool for scientific inquiry. They only felt the excitement of creation and the reassurance of collaboration. Lauren had transported them to that world.

A bouncing ball created through V Python

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Want to know more? Contact Lauren at lstewart@sylvaniaschools.org.