Tag Archives: ICS Addis

Robotics: making, programming, competing

You can see it in their faces: the broad grins, the light shining in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices:

“This is so cool!”

These are the signs of students who have successfully done something that they’ve never done before. They’ve made something themselves, and got it working by themselves. This is the joy of the “maker” movement, the appeal of robotics, the push to teach programming in all schools.

I see it regularly in computing and robotics classrooms at ICS, and here it is in our High School robotics after-school activity. This small group of students are learning to build and program robots. It’s a small start for them: they got the robot to move in a straight line and then spin around in a circle. But those small steps start the students on a long and exciting journey.

robotThis is the process of building and making things for themselves. Many of us are content to read other people’s content on the web, watch other people’s videos, play other people’s games, etc. Some – the movers and shakers of today – are driven to actually create these things. They make new websites, create new games, build new tools. Robotics is part of that: the process of assembling a robot is an act of making and tinkering, which helps not only to lead to work in engineering and other fields but also to success in problem-solving. Then, once the robot is built, the students have to write a program to get the robot to do what they want. It’s a precise task, and one that requires the students to think through a task in logical steps, write out the code and then check it for errors.

I’ve written about programming before, and its value in modern society. Perhaps Douglas Rushkoff sums it up best by saying that people who can program are the true literates of the modern age: the writers who create new things compared to the majority of us who are simply users. These students are on the journey to being the leaders of the world: the ones who can build the tools and systems that the rest of us use.

It’s exciting to see the students start down that road …and see the glee in their faces when they get the machine to do what they want. There’s an extra bonus incentive for them: competition. ICS is part of ISSEA (International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa), which primarily sponsors sports tournaments. (Our upcoming track & field event is an ISSEA tournament.) However, the group has branched out into Arts events and – starting last year – a STEM competition in which students are challenged to solve mathematical and scientific problems, including building and programming robots. Last year, our students traveled to Harare to compete, where the robotics team won the KISS award despite problems knocking them out of the competition. This coming April our students will head to Lusaka, and they hope to do better!

We’ve started on our journey. It’s exciting to think about where it might lead…

Cross-posted from my school blog.

Anuther kase four programing

Can you see the error in this code?
Can you spot the error in this code?

As I go from student to student, helping them debug their program, it strikes me that there’s a very simple reason why teaching programming is a help for all students. So many of them have simple typographic errors: three n’s in “running,” leaving out the n in “column,” etc. I give them some hints (often simply saying “spelling error!” suffices) and they stare at the screen intensely until, with a smile, they find the mistake. That’s when I tell them: they’re going to be so good at proofreading their work in all their classes!

There’s probably a good research question there: do students who learn to successfully program apply their proofreading and error checking skills in English and other classes? It’s something I’m going to track with my current students …meanwhile, I’ll just continue to help them develop careful spell-checking and proofreading skills.

Our Digital Life

“Smartphone” by Jeshoots licensed CC0/public domain

What’s the place of digital media in our lives? What’s the consequences of oversharing online? How can we make responsible choices when we use other people’s creative work? What factors intensify cyberbullying and online cruelty and what can we do to lessen them?

The distinction between online life and offline life is blurring more and more, especially for young people. It’s our responsibility as educators to help our students not only be successful in learning more about the subjects our school offers but also in how to navigate the media and networks of our online life.

Our school teaches explicitly the skills and concepts of “Digital Citizenship” – responsible, ethical and intelligent behavior while online. In our Advisory sessions, as well as in other classes, students will be grappling with issues such as cyberbullying, oversharing, copyright and remixing others’ work, and other important aspects of online life.

To help us do this effectively and efficiently, ICS is using the Digital Citizenship curriculum that was developed by CommonSenseMedia, a non-profit organization devoted to helping families be informed and responsible online users, consumers, sharers and creators. The Digital Citizenship curriculum they’ve developed is highly regarded and widely used in schools, and we are using and adapting it for our students at ICS.

But this education can’t only happen in school. We ask all parents to help your children to learn their place in the online world and act responsibly and safely. I’ll be publishing information on this blog and in the school’s newsletter for parents and other community members to be more informed about how to help our children grow and develop in the online world.

For starters, I encourage all parents to read this PDF Family Tip Sheet on using common sense in digital life. It’s full of good advice for parents, with some excellent suggestions on how to help your children cope with life online.

As for me, the key is one of our ICS Learner Profile traits: balance. It’s OK for kids to be online, chatting and posting on Facebook, sharing on Instagram, watching YouTube videos, etc. It’s also important for them to get outside and play soccer, or go to a dance, or just hang out chatting with their friends over coffee. We’re lucky here in Addis that this is the norm for our children. It’s part of our culture (in school and throughout the community) to value these offline, person-to-person interactions.

As the weeks go by, I’ll be showcasing many of our projects with students and the skills and ideas they’re grappling with. Share your questions, concerns and ideas!

Cross-posted from my school blog.

A sweet start to the year

The first day of classes is a problem for a computer-based course such as Developing Computer Applications. The temptation is to try to dive into working with computers, but the students haven’t received their laptops yet. (I’ve yet to figure out a system where we could just hand them over on Day 1!)

But even if they had the laptops, it might not be the right thing to just dive right in to programming and creating apps. Even in High School, it’s important to try to build community in a class and establish relationships. For me the first thing that’s important in a class is letting the students know that computer programming is a challenge (and sometimes very frustrating), but also fun and rewarding.

So I thought I’d do a fun group-based “unplugged” lesson – teaching a computer science concept without using computers. One of the building blocks of programming is the idea of an algorithm: a step-by-step procedure for accomplishing something. In order to give instructions to the computer, you need to break a task down into tiny steps and give those commands in clear, precise language. I’ve done this before with making a sandwich, but I looked for more inspiration and found a great plan by Phil Bagge that I adapted.

After the concept of algorithm was introduced by having them explain the process of long division, the students were given the following instructions:


And I explained: they were to give the SandwichBot 3000 robot (me!) step-by-step instructions to make a jam sandwich. If they did it wrong, they’d have to fix it. If they did it right, they’d get a snack for a reward. (It helped having the class just before lunch – they were hungry!) They got into teams of 4 and started working.

When two teams had finished, they came to give the “robot” their instructions. The whole class watched to see how quickly their friends would get a yummy snack.

They quickly found out that their hard work was often a failure. The brainless robot did what they told him to do, even if it didn’t make sense. He also would stop if they didn’t give instructions in clear language. “Put it down” was met with “I don’t know what ‘it’ is.” If they told the robot to pick something up and forgot to tell it to put it down, his hands got full and he couldn’t do a step. Sometimes their instructions resulted in surprising results: “press the bread down onto the plate” got a squished slice!

The best laugh was when one team instructed the robot to “scoop out jam with right hand.” Without a knife, the robot dug into the jar and held up a handful of jam! (The robot had washed his hands well with soap before the lesson!)

Each time their algorithm “crashed,” they had to go back and try it again. Eventually, their instructions were covered in cross-outs, additions, etc. The great thing about it was that eventually, every team got a plate of jam sandwiches. They all laughed, both at the robot and at their own mistakes. They gave each other encouragement and suggestions. From a social point of view, a success.

Also successful academically in a great way: they didn’t give up. They didn’t get a low score on their algorithm. They “failed” but went back to fix their work and improve it. (A buzzphrase in education: “FAIL = First Attempt In Learning.”) Eventually, they all succeeded.

When I asked the students afterwards what they’d learned, one of them said, “algorithms are hard!!” But, I asked, did they succeed? Yes, they agreed. And that’s the frustrating and wonderful part about programming. Computers are dumb machines. It’s hard to figure out the right sequence of instructions and the right language to get them to do what you want, but eventually you can and do. I’ve never had a student not be successful in building an application. Some build huge, fancy programs, while others create more simple ones …but they all succeed.

And that’s a sweet lesson to start the year!

credit: photo of bread & jam by Yemisi Ogbe from Wikimedia Commons licensed CC-BY-SA

Moving to a more standardized instructional platform

JpegWe are planning to make some significant changes in our systems for next year. In order to be more standardized and make teaching and learning easier, we will be requiring the use of specific operating systems.

Operating Systems: ALL teachers, TAs and students will use either Windows 8.1 or Macintosh OSX 10.10 (Yosemite). All school-owned student computers will have Windows 8.1 installed on them. All school-owned laptops will be upgraded to Windows 8.1 or OSX 10.10. All personally-owned teacher, TA or student laptops will need to be upgraded to Windows 8.1 or OSX 10.10.

  • Will you upgrade my laptop’s operating system for me? All school-owned laptops will have Windows 8.1 installed. We are asking all teachers and students to upgrade their computer’s operating system during the break. It’s a time-consuming process. If you ask us to do it in August, it will require several days. (Do it when you’ve got a high-speed connection!)
  • Windows 8.1 is not a free upgrade. Will ICS provide me with a license? We are working on a licensing option and can assist with that BUT it is a license with an annual fee. If you take that option, your license for Windows will expire when you leave ICS. If you want to pursue this, please talk with us.
  • Will my computer accept an upgrade? If your computer was purchased reasonably recently, it will upgrade to the latest system. Please see the Microsoft or Apple system requirements or ask for help from the IT Help Desk if you are unsure.
  • Is upgrading easy? Changing the operating system of your computer is not very hard, but it’s not trivial. Please make sure you back up all your data and applications beforehand! (Please note that some applications may not work with your new operating system.)
  • What if I refuse to upgrade? We will not support other systems. We are only supporting these two operating systems to make teaching & learning easier.
  • Can I upgrade to Windows 10 or OSX 10.11 when they come out? No. We are only supporting Windows 8.1 and OSX 10.10.

Productivity Software: We are licensing Microsoft Office 365 for all school computers. This will also cover all teacher-owned or student-owned computers. We will install Office software on all school-owned student laptops during the summer, and will help teachers and students get it installed on personally-owned laptops in August. Office 365 includes the latest version of Office (Office 2013 for Windows, Office 2011 for OSX). This is an annual license – if you leave ICS, your software will expire.

  • What if I have my own copy of Microsoft Office? If you are using the current version, then you may continue using that. If you are using an older version, you will need to either buy your own upgrade or use the school license. You must use Microsoft Office 2011 (OSX) or Office 2013 (Windows).
  • What about all my LibreOffice files? We recommend you keep that installed and use it to convert files from .odt to .docx and so forth. Microsoft Office does not always easily read LibreOffice files. We will use Microsoft Office for all school work.
  • What if I need help doing things in Microsoft Office? We will have both face-to-face and online training sessions scheduled. Help Desk staff will be available for assistance as well. We will be requiring all teachers and TA’s and students to demonstrate competency in using Microsoft Office.

We’ll be sending out more information over the next few weeks: by email, in the Yezare Samint, and on this blog, If you have any questions, please let me know.

Global Codeathon

JpegClick. Click. Click.

“Look what I made!” “Oh, that’s COOL!”

Click. Click. Click.

“Hey, how did you do that??” “Here, let me show you!”

The buzz in the room was tremendous. Students were excitedly working on projects individually, working together to solve problems and enthusiastically checking out each other’s work. For us adults in the room, it was a busy and fun time: helping students, giving out praise and suggestions, asking questions, pointing out other students’ success.

This past Saturday, ICS participated in the Global Codeathon, an international competition/collaborative project. Students in grades 3-6 from international schools all around the world assembled in their respective schools to build games, simulations and other programs using Scratch, a free online coding platform built by MIT to help children learn computer programming.

JpegICS students came to the ES computer lab and dove right in. They got help from Middle Schooler, Abheek, as well as from Ms Alex and Ms Heran (and myself!) but the ideas, as well as the execution, was all theirs. They added “sprites” to their programs, gave them commands to move, make noises, change their appearance, and more. They had to act in one way when clicked on by the mouse, another way when keys were pressed on the keyboard. They had to think through how they could get the computer to move and animate things the way they wanted. It was hard, but it was fun!

Meanwhile, students in schools all around the world were doing the same. We had some technical difficulties, including a complete internet outage for the first 45 minutes, which stopped us from video chatting with them, but our students chatted with them on the “backchannel” chat line, and also got to share their work in two Scratch “galleries.” They enjoyed getting comments on their games from students in other countries, and had fun trying out other students’ projects.

At the end, Ms Alex and Ms Heran brought out pizzas and juice boxes for the tired but still enthusiastic programmers. You can’t code without fuel! All agreed it was a fun day …and we’re looking forward to an even better time (with a better connection!) next year!


Hour of Code


“This is awesome!

Any time a teacher hears that from a student, it makes the teacher’s day week year. That phrase has been heard quite a few times this week as we’ve had students participate in the annual Hour of Code.

The Hour of Code was started last year as an initiative within the annual Computer Science Education Week, which is held every December (coinciding with the birthday of the amazing programmer and computer scientist, Admiral Grace Hopper). The Hour of Code was intended to get every student spending one hour doing some programming to get them started with programming, Computer Science and computational thinking. This year, the project has been expanded worldwide, with the goal of reaching 50 million students.

ICS students participated in the Hour of Code this year in a number of ways:

Elementary School

JpegDSCI0180In ES, students from grade 4 and 5 signed up for a special lunchtime Art Studio. Normally, Helen Iglar runs Art Studio for students to do any kind of artwork they are interested in – this week, she focused the students on art through programming. Using iPads, the students completed a tutorial from Code.org and then moved on to use the Hopscotch app. In Hopscotch, students program cartoon “sprites” to draw shapes. With some critical thinking and creativity, students can use Hopscotch to program artwork.

An excited group of students signed up and committed to the week, coming to Art Studio every day. They finished up on Friday with a celebration and photographs with their certificates. One student said, “This isn’t the Hour of Code, it’s the Power of Code!”

Middle School

JpegIn MS, all students participated last week, because their schedule this week was already full. So students had their Wednesday “Community Time” to explore the tutorials on the Code.org website to solve programming tasks. The students were excited about it and conveyed their enthusiasm to their teachers and advisors. Several of them were spotted continuing their programming after school!

This week, we opened up a lunchtime challenge for all Middle School students to use the Scratch programming environment (installed on their laptops and free to download for home computers) to build a clone of the Flappy Birds game. A number of Middle School students took up the challenge and spent their lunchtime happily programming away!

ms_hour_of_code ms_hour_of_code2

High School

JpegIn High School, a group of students decided that an hour wasn’t enough and are organizing a Month of Programming, with tutorials, challenges, contests and prizes. This will come after the holiday and more information will be published here and in the Yezare Samint.

Meanwhile, last week’s Grade 10 Week Within Walls STEAM week included a programming component in which a group of students used the LiveCode application development program to code their own computer games. And also a lunchtime Hour of Code was held during CS Ed Week in which students looked at and analyzed the Scratch Flappy Bird game.


On Saturday, our weekly CoderDojo will focus on the Hour of Code to have students build games, take tutorials and have fun! All are welcome – parents, come along and learn some programming along with your children!


Projects of Passion

 “I wish school was like this every day.”

When a teacher hears this kind of comment from a student, you know you’re doing something right. There were a number of comments like this last week from Grade 10 students. They had a week off timetable and we decided to give them a week of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) projects, plus some time to do a “passion project” on a topic/area of interest of their choosing. The students rose to the occasion and did some amazing work.

There are a few elements of the week that are worth focusing on:


JpegStudents were able to choose which area they wanted to work in. It was first-come first-served (so some got their second choice), but the students appreciated being able to pick for themselves what type of work they wanted to do.

One group of students built air-pressured bottle rockets designed to launch into the air and travel safely (with a parachute for gentle landings) a specified distance. They learned about aeronautics, hydrolics and air pressure, drag, and other important Science and Engineering concepts. Another group used SketchUp to build digital 3D scale models of campus buildings. They measured, calculated and used Trigonometry and other Mathematics concepts to make sure their models were to scale. A third group of students built and programmed robots to perform set tasks. Another group of students used LiveCode to program their own computer game. Finally, another group of students created a 3D mural to adorn the mini-amphitheatre reflecting Ethiopia, Lucy and human bones.

Students really appreciated being able to choose different projects and being more in control of their work.


Students were given an opportunity to pursue a “passion project” – to pick an area that they (individually or in small groups) were very interested in and to do a project related to that. They were given time and some guidance to the project, but otherwise allowed to work at their own speed & level.

Some students explored photography, others focused on a sport. Some continued their STEAM project, while others

created something artistic. One student created a model of an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. Another researched a medical issue and produced a poster giving information about it. A few wrote poems, while others wrote and performed songs. Several made videos about their passion, whether it was skateboarding, football, forestry or other topics.

Many students commented on how they appreciated being able to pursue their own particular interest.


JpegStudents were given a fair bit of latitude in doing their own individual passion project, and given a fair bit of leeway in the other projects regarding what they would contribute or produce. Students appreciated being given time and space to do their work at their own pace. Teachers were monitoring them and keeping them on task, but they weren’t constantly directing the students. As one student said:

“I liked getting the opportunity of exploring what interests us. I also loved the liberty that we were bestowed with. We didn’t have teachers telling us what to do for once. “


STEAM week for Grade 10 students

JpegAs we’ve refined our Week Without Walls trips, we’ve adjusted the school schedule to minimize the disruption to classes. In the High School, we’ve scheduled two grade levels at the same time, leaving two other grade levels in school to focus on different parts of their learning. For IB Diploma students in grades 11 and 12, that week is a chance to focus on the IB courses and related work. For 9th and 10th grade students, the week is a special off-timetable week that focuses on project-based learning and learning experiences beyond the normal boundaries of subject areas and class periods.

This week, Grade 10 students are experiencing a special STEAM week. STEAM is an acronym referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. This is an are of increased emphasis in education, as schools recognize the increasing need to educate students in these areas to help them be more creative and critical thinkers as well as being more adept in our technological world.

For this week, we built a special schedule that would give students a chance to get a little introduction to each area, and then to choose an area in which to work for longer periods of time. Each group of students is working in one area to develop a project that they will share and show off at the end of the week. The PE teachers organized some physical breaks for the students, and Elias Fessehaye is leading the students in a fun and engaging Korfball tournament.

JpegThere are five main areas where the students are working on projects. In the Arts, Laura Blue-Waters is guiding a group of students to create a 3D mural to be displayed outdoors on campus. Leulseged Assefa is working with a group of students on programming robots to complete different challenges, working in the areas of Technology and Engineering. In Mathematics, Rob Maddock is working with a group of students to measure school buildings and use the 3D modelling software SketchUpMake to build a scale model of the campus. I’m working with students in Technology to build applications, programming games that can run on any computer. And in Science and Engineering, Dave Acland is challenging students to design and build a device that will launch and transport an object a set height and distance.

These challenges let the students explore different tasks than what they normally have to grapple with in classes, work together, plan and build solutions to problems, test those solutions and revise their work as needed. It’s a dynamic, fun and challenging experience for all.

JpegIn addition to these set areas, we’ve also built in some “Genius Hour” time (also called 20% time) to allow students to explore and learn in areas that they have an individual interest. This is a technique that many schools are implementing – it comes from various sources, including Google’s initiative to allow employees to use 20% of their time to work on any project they are interested in. There’s a long and growing tradition of “heutagogy” – allowing students to develop their own learning experiences by pursuing things they are passionate about.

Our grade 10 students had to plan and get approved their ideas for their own Passion Projects, and there’s an interesting and varied bunch of projects. Students are making videos, building models, creating artwork, making posters, taking photos, doing research, and more. These are in areas related to physical fitness and sports, medicine, history, zoology, Art and other subjects. It’ll be exciting to see what they come up with by the end of the week!

It’s proving to be an active and fascinating week (I’m writing this midway through) and I’m looking forward to reporting on the outcomes after the students share their STEAM and Passion projects on Friday.



poster_develop_superpowersBy popular demand, and to meet the needs and interests of ICS students and parents, we are proud to announce that we are relaunching our weekend programming opportunity, CoderDojo:

ICS CoderDojo

Saturdays, from 2pm to 4pm

Starts 15 Nov & runs every weekend (except holidays & long weekends)

Room S021 (secondary computer/maker/robotics lab)


What’s a CoderDojo?

CoderDojos are informal, fun sessions where children and adults can learn programming skills in a relaxed, positive atmosphere. CoderDojos were started by James Whelton, an Irish High School student who taught himself to program and who wanted to share this skill with others. CoderDojos are free and open places to share skills and learn programming.

What are the rules?

There is one main rule: Be Cool. This is the CoderDojo way of expressing The ICS Way. We do ask parents of young children to come with your child. This not only helps with logistics, but also helps you learn alongside your child!

What will children learn?

That’s kind of up to them! This is NOT a formal lesson. There are no tests, no exams, etc. We won’t set any homework (although any children who want to practice at home are very welcome to – we’ll use free, multiplatform systems that children and parents can load onto their home computers).

We will encourage young children to use Scratch to build computer games. Scratch is an easy, free, multiplatform system that is intended to help children learn programming. (Children can use the website to code online, or parents can download and install the offline version to save bandwidth.)

Older students will be encouraged to explore Greenfoot or Processing, two versions of Java that are easy to get into. Others might like to learn Python, a powerful but simple language. We’ll also explore HTML to learn how web pages are built, as well as CSS which is what’s used to style websites. Any students who have other ideas are very welcome! Last year, we had some students take their own courses to learn Java and C++

Who’s running CoderDojo?

Both myself and Leulseged Assefa (MS Computing teacher) will be overseeing the dojo. We will also have guest experts who will help students and show some tips and tricks.

Can I help?

Sure! If you want to help supervise, organize or be a guest expert, you’re very welcome. Let me know! If you lack technical expertise, we’d still appreciate assistance in organization, supervision, etc.

Where can I find out more?

Read the FAQs of CoderDojo here. Or email me: john.iglar at icsaddis.edu.et