Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Intro to Coding Using Mr Potato Head

It's always nice to hear a student say something along the lines of what I heard today:
"Mrs Leban, why do we do so many fun things in your class?" 

Which made me giggle and reply, "Oh I'm sorry - is that a problem? You need me to scale back?"

But seriously, it's nice to know that the weird things I do sometimes are actually connecting with kids - you don't always get that kind of feedback from middle-schoolers. So I take it and enjoy it when I can.

Today's activity is a super basic intro to the concepts of coding: namely, giving specific and accurate directions. We have students role play and assemble a Mr Potato Head toy. I call it the "Mr Potato Head Challenge!" Here's how it goes:


Students work in table groups of 3-4. You will need one Mr Potato Head "set" per table. In lieu of having enough toys, you could do one whole-class game, or split into larger groups based on what you have available.

Side note: I received ALL of my Mr Potato Head sets for FREE. I asked my PTA to put the word out for Mr Potato Head donations (used or new!) and I got like a dozen in less than a month's time! All I had to do was sort all of the parts out into "sets," which I store in these bins from the dollar store:

Here's how to explain the game to students:

  • One student is the COMPUTER, who puts together Mr Potato Head, and is responsible for following the directions from the CODER. 
  • One student is the CODER, who gives the directions.

If you want to get fancy, make name tags:

The COMPUTER doesn't know what each object is called. It can only recognize colors and shapes, like in Google Draw. The CODER will have to be able to describe the object. (Proper names of shapes, like oval or circle, are ok.)

Pro Tip: Arrange parts in a grid formation, or rows by color, to aid in identifying specific parts based on location/coordinates...

Students will play multiple games, trading roles so that everyone at the table gets a turn. The observers are welcome to help their fellow CODER, if necessary, should he/she get stuck on a direction. What should Mr Potato Head look like when he's done? That's up to the CODER!

In my observations, it's super fun to play the COMPUTER role, because students can purposely play dumb when they receive vague directions: Put this on the top. Turn this to the side. Put this on the face. They really seem to get into interpreting directions in alternate ways, which is actually really helpful when I explain how a computer can only follow the directions that are given, and that computer languages have to be very precise - a mistyped lower or uppercase letter can throw off an entire set of coding commands!

After much hilarity, you can debrief with your class at the end of the activity:

  • What did you learn about giving directions? Was it hard or easy?
  • Discuss with students the concept of coding and how the things that are coded are only as good as the person who did the coding - give examples of microwaves, street lights, etc

This activity is part of a larger unit I complete with students using Google Draw, where students create a "monster" drawing, and then must also type up the directions for a classmate to follow. The unit following this one is on coding, so I find that this unit is a nice way to ease into the concept.

- Mrs L.
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