Using Educational Technology to Enhance Learning

At the Watson Institute’s Friendship Academy, students with mental and behavioral health challenges work with a team of experienced educational and psychiatric support professionals to achieve their academic, developmental, and behavioral goals.

A key component of educational coursework at Friendship Academy are the special education transition skill sets that help students prepare for their transition into adulthood after graduation. Pre-vocational and social skills lessons are embedded into a variety of the activities that students work through in their classrooms.

The Technology Education class at Friendship Academy provides students with ample opportunities to explore their interests while learning academic principles, vocational skills, as well as social and emotional skills. Advances in technology and manufacturing industries have opened up a wide array of career paths for students who may discover a passion for computing, programming, or manufacturing.

Gabriel Montelaro, the Friendship Academy Technology Education Teacher, has been creative when building out the educational technology curriculum this year. Not only is he utilizing available equipment such as 3D printers, laser etchers, and robotics kits – he’s also incorporating creative approaches to classroom science into classroom lessons, including Minecraft for Education and Robot Turtles.

How Technology Enhances Learning

As part of the technology education curriculum, students at Friendship Academy are learning about computational thinking, sequencing, and problem-solving! Computational thinking breaks down what seems like a complex problem into smaller pieces that can be tackled step-by-step. This type of thinking is an incredibly useful approach and skill set for students and will aid them in professions of every field, not just those that use computers and programming.

Computational thinking can be a challenging concept to teach, so to make it fun and accessible for students of all ages, Mr. Montelaro is using a game called Robot Turtles to teach into fundamentals.

In the Robot Turtles board game, students are presented with a map upon which gems are placed alongside a variety of obstacles standing in the students’ way of obtaining those gems. Students have to “program” a sequence of moves to get their turtle around and through the obstacles to reach the gems.

Not only are students able to visualize each step in their sequence by laying out playing cards to plot their next move, they also use 3D printed turtle figures to make their moves around the board. The Prusa Mini+ 3D printers are a popular tool in Mr. Montelaro’s classroom and can be used to create a myriad of useful objects. Students are able to earn coveted ‘print time’ by engaging in appropriate classroom behavior. Once they’ve banked print time, they can choose a 3D model from “thingiverse” (an online catalog of digital designs) to make on the 3D printer.

It might sound like it’s all fun and games in educational technology, but students are learning a lot more than just gaming! On the programming side, students are learning about sequencing, forward planning, and problem-solving. Through Robot Turtles, students are able to visualize how detailed a program needs to be in order to function properly. The students have to be meticulous in their instructions for it to perform as intended.

Mr. Montelaro also aims to impart skills that can benefit his students beyond their technical abilities. As students move their robots around the game board, they learn that sometimes their planned moves don’t turn out the way they expected. For example, maybe they programmed their turtle to turn left when it should have turned right. It’s the same with the 3D printer; sometimes the designs fail and don’t produce a usable item.

Mr. Montelaro keeps a ‘fail box’ that holds all of the 3D prints that didn’t work out. He uses this to teach his students that even experienced programmers, like him, can experience failure from time to time, but it’s what you learn from it that will benefit you in the long run. These classroom activities are teaching students valuable lessons about patience and resilience.

Minecraft: Education Edition

With the middle and high school students at Friendship Academy, Mr. Montelaro has incorporated Minecraft: Education Edition into the educational technology curriculum. Minecraft if a popular computer video game in which users can build worlds for their character using various materials that can be mined within the game.

In the Minecraft: Education Edition, students in Mr. Montelaro’s class are working together to build out the environment for their class. Before beginning, the students have to communicate with one another to plan out the design and basic shapes that will be built within their environment.

This effort requires a lot of teamwork and collaboration. First, students need to plan for their materials – will they need wood, stone, or brick to build out their designs, and how much of each will be needed? Then, they need to collect and mine for the resources. Finally, they can start to build out the designs using the resources they’ve collected. They also have to protect their characters and their environment from monsters and zombies who attack during the night!

All of the steps in the process require communication and teamwork. Students are learning how to actively listen to their peers and have conversations about group decision-making. These are important skills that will serve students well as they transition into adulthood and pursue further education or seek out job opportunities.

In addition to the group environment, students can work through learning modules on a variety of topics, including: Arts and Literature, Intro to Coding, Equity and Inclusion, Math, and Science, to name a few.

As the year goes on, Mr. Montelaro is learning which programs his students respond best to and is creating new activities to engage his students’ interests to help them grow.

Through Technology Education, students can explore their interests while learning alongside their peers. Some students have taken a keen interest in programming and coding while others discovered their interest in the workshop and Maker Space environment, using tools to craft and build. All of these activities help to prepare students with necessary special education transition skills and open up a wide array of post-secondary educational and vocational opportunities to pursue.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s Friendship Academy and how students in Technology Education class are learning through creative exploration.

Watch the Friendship Academy Educational Technology classroom at work!