Students put their coding skills to test at Cutchogue East’s BattleBots competition

Dozens of brightly colored robots whirred around the cafeteria floor at Cutchogue East Elementary on Wednesday as fourth grade students put their coding skills to the test.

The room was transformed into a robotics arena where students split into two teams, competing against each other to score — or steal — the most points.

“It’s really a cumulative celebration of all the code we’ve learned,” said STEAM coordinator Meghan Tepfenhardt, who helps lead a district-wide initiative to expand science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics activities for K-6 students.

From their own iPads, students in Catherine Duffy and Dan O’Sullivan’s fourth-grade class battled it out, cheering each time a robot functioning as either a gripper, launcher or helper, helped move a colored block into the end zone to score a point.

Students used a series of apps to control their bright blue Dash robot complete with a cyclopean eye, by writing and executing code sequences on the spot.

Ms. Tepfenhardt said programming and working with robots fosters problem-solving skills, creativity and collaboration.

And, besides, it’s fun.

“Whether it’s high-tech or low tech, we make sure it’s centered around ‘here’s a problem, how am I going to solve it?’ It’s trying, attempting, adjusting and trying again,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said of the process.

While students would typically work in groups to control one larger robot, Ms. Tepfenhardt said the pandemic led to a more independent approach. “We had to think about it in a very different way,” she said, adding that the district and Board of Education lent their support through funding and purchasing additional robots for the one-to-one experience.

Teamwork and strategizing were still evident as students worked together during Wednesday’s session.

 “The idea of persevering and revision, having to go back at something to really accomplish a task in itself is amazing,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said. “STEAM just lends itself to that.”

At the end of the week-long competition, the team with the highest score will be named Cutchogue East BattleBots Champions.

Learning to code is now just as commonplace as learning multiplication or the scientific method and educators say they’re already seeing the benefits.

“They’ve learned so much doing this program,” Ms. Duffy said. “The thing I’m starting to notice is the crossover into math class.”

“We just started introducing geometry and angles and even today, the students are like ‘Oh! That’s a 90-degree turn,’ so it’s nice to see that carryover,” she added. “It’s making the terms that we teach become real and tangible for them, which is pretty neat.”

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch said the third- and fourth graders have been looking forward to the BattleBots unit for weeks. “Who doesn’t love to battle their peers using robots?” she said.

The STEAM program was introduced at the elementary school level two years ago and Ms. Gierasch said it’s only the beginning. Next school year, the program is expected to be fully funded and expanded at the secondary level through a robotics club.

“When we purposely tap students’ interest with high level, engaging and challenging curriculum, the opportunities await for children at all levels,” she said.