In the News: Professor Partners With Middle School Teachers to Bring Computer Programming to Youth

Augustana professor works with students.

Augustana's Dr. Drew Alton (physics) works with students from Harrisburg North Middle School to program and fly a drone.

Last fall, Augustana's Dr. Drew Alton, associate professor of physics, in partnership with Nancy Weidenbach, Julie Alton, and Leah Howes from Harrisburg North Middle School, received a grant from the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium to engage students in computer programming through projects involving robots and drones. 

The grant provided resources to help Harrisburg North Middle School teachers develop a curriculum and enabled Alton and AU students to support the teachers in the development of the project. 

"A key element was to make this very hands-on and exciting by having the students program Lego robots and drones," Alton said.

On Tuesday, March 15, Harrisburg North eighth graders had their first opportunity to program and fly the drones. KELO-TV reporter Calah Kelley was there to capture the action:

Augie Professor Gets Middle Schoolers Excited About STEM Fields
By Calah Kelley, KELO-TV

There has been a national push to get grade school students more interested in computer science. Now it’s taking hold locally.

It's not every day that you see eighth graders pumped up about computer programming.

“I always thought it was kind of for geeks almost, but now that I've seen what they can do, it's kind of sparked an interest in me," eighth grader Mathew Swanson said.

Drones have got some Harrisburg North middle schoolers' attention. Many said they're more fascinated than ever about learning how to input the codes that make them spin.

"Where coding as a topic might not be interesting, but when we say okay we're going to code for drones and make them fly around, it's something a lot cooler." Augustana University student Andrew Gardner said.

Augustana University Physics Professor Drew Alton and a couple of his students set out to get grade school children involved in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Thanks to a $16,000 NASA donation from the South Dakota Space Grant, they're doing just that.

"So this is just a good chance to give them something exciting where they learn how programming is important,” Alton said.

Augustana officials wanted to get students excited about programming in computer class. So they bought 15 drones and 12 Lego robots.

Alton says most people don't learn about computer science and other STEM careers until they get to college. He's hoping getting kids engaged in grades school will keep them involved in the future.

“This gives students a chance to engage in computer programming at an earlier age, and see if it's something they'll enjoy when they finish and find a career," Alton said.

Alton says the middle school's program is a pilot for others to come. Harrisburg school officials are already in the process of developing a computer programming class at the city's high school.