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Computational Thinking, Cyber Robotics, and Computer Science Education with CoderZ

Maddie (00:36):
So many students who have access to coding and robotics find themselves really, really passionate about it. But the problem is that there are so many barriers to entry that make it difficult for students and teachers to get involved. CoderZ is solving this problem and creating amazing virtual coding and robotics courses and resources for schools and afterschool programs. Our interview today is so much fun. I’m chatting with some people from CoderZ, and I can’t wait for you to hear our conversation.

Maddie (03:48):
We are back with another interview. It’s definitely been a while, and this is one that I’ve been looking forward to for weeks now, today, I’m chatting with Ashlynn Schindler and Jordan Campbell from CoderZ. Lifelong collector of eclectic interests and useless knowledge, Ashlynn is a forever science educator and is currently the marketing content manager for CoderZ. Jordan is a former elementary school teacher and lifelong learner with a passion for helping others. She’s also currently the social media manager for CoderZ. Coderz is an award-winning online platform through which students learn valuable STEM skills like coding and robotics. Now I am selfishly really excited for this episode as a stem teacher, myself, you guys, if you listen to this podcast a lot, you know that I love coding. I love robotics, but I also know that so many of our listeners are going to love today’s conversation, no matter what grade level or what subject you teach. So Jordan and Ashlynn, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.

Jordan Campbell (05:00):
Thank you for having us. We’re excited.

Maddie (05:05):
Awesome. So it’s been a while since I’ve had two guests on the show at the same time, I’m mostly used to interviewing just one person at a time. So I’m really excited that I get the opportunity to chat with both of you. You know, I briefly just introduce you both, but could you talk about your background and what led you to CoderZ?

Ashylnn Schindler (05:22):
All right. So as, as you said, I’m Ashlynn Schindler. So I come from the science classroom myself. I was a science teacher at the high school level for eight years. I taught everything in anything. I physics biology, chemistry we did some interdisciplinary courses with me and an art teacher and me and an English teacher. I taught broadcasting video editing whatever you want me to teach, I could teach. So I did. So I come from and a performing arts background as well. So in my professional education journey, I really wanted to be able to do more. You know, I was always the person who had cool resources to get to my fellow educators of, Hey, there’s this really cool program out there. You guys should sign up for it. Hey, there’s this really cool organization that we should partner with. Hey, I found this thing where we can get trout eggs and raise them in our classroom and then release them into the river. And I would always be the one to bring those to my colleagues. So I started looking for an opportunity to do that at a larger scale. And I found that at CoderZ. So now I have that same opportunity to find those cool resources and bring them to my fellow educators. Now I just get to do it on an international scale.

Maddie (06:51):
That’s awesome. I love hearing how you kind of had your hands in a lot of different places in the classroom and an education. And it’s really neat to hear how that sort of translated into what you’re up to now. Jordan, what about you?

Jordan Campbell (07:03):
My name is Jordan and I am a former elementary school teacher. So I taught first and third grade for three years. So I’m still young, but I taught all courses and a totally inclusive classroom. While I was in the classroom, like Ashlyn, I loved, loved, loved getting to collaborate with other educators, share resources, gain new insights, new ideas, things like that. When I could incorporate STEM into my classroom, that is when I saw my students light up. They were so engaged. They absolutely adored it. And I wanted to find out, you know, how can we make this more of a presence, especially in our younger kiddos classrooms. I also love networking and things like that. So like Ashlyn, I started a hunt for kind of, how can I tie all of these things that I have a passion for it together. And I found that in CoderZ. So here we are.

Maddie (08:19):
That’s awesome. I love that you both have a background in teaching because most of our listeners are teachers. And so they can very much relate to that experience. And Jordan, I really liked that you said that you saw your students light up when you had STEM lessons, that’s something that I very much experienced as a stem teacher. It’s definitely why I love teaching STEM. I very much experience that same sort of spark that comes from students. So I like hearing that that’s something that we we have in common. So we, I know we chatted a little bit before the show and I said that I first discovered you guys through Instagram. I’m really active on Instagram, I really love Instagram, and you guys are really active too. And so I’ve loved getting to see getting to see so many of your really interesting posts. But since I discovered you guys on Instagram, then I explored your website, and you guys do so many really, really cool things. So for listeners who may be, might not be familiar with CoderZ, could you talk about your mission and what you guys are doing to achieve that mission?

Jordan Campbell (09:18):
So we are basically a virtual coding and robotics platform for all learners, basically grades 3-12. And we try to make things affordable, scalable, and accessible for all of our learners and teachers as well, because as we spoke about before this, you know, coding can be intimidating for teachers as well as students. So we try to present it in a way that is accessible for everybody. So we have different courses that we can get into. We have partnered with Amazon. We have an Amazon cyber robotics challenge that also ties into a virtual field trip, which is just absolutely amazing. And then we also have a CoderZ league, and this league takes the coding and virtual robotics and adds in that competition factor so that teams schools can compete against one another. So that’s a really cool opportunity as well.

Ashylnn Schindler (10:31):
To tell the story, the story top to bottom, so our parent company, they are a robotics company and they had an educational outreach arm and they wanted to look at ways to get robotics into more classrooms. I’m sure as a STEM educator, you know, that robotics is expensive and you have to have a teacher who is interested in robotics and feels comfortable enough to say, yes, I’m going to start a robotics club. We’re going to do this. So there’s just a lot of obstacles to adoption of a really valuable experience. I remember a couple of years ago, I took a group of students to a stem career day at a local software company. And you had to sign up in advance for the actual robotics class because they had such a limited number of actual robots that they could play with.

Ashylnn Schindler (11:20):
So you have this wonderful day with careers and NASA was there, everybody aND anybody, but when it came to the actual event, that was the big draw. You had such a limited pool of students who could actually have that hands on experience. So they started looking for ways to expand that access lower the cost of entry and kind of get rid of some of those barriers, especially looking at it from an equitable lens, right? We want to make sure that everybody has access to these experiences. So they developed CoderZ as a way to get robotics and coding into the hands of as many students as possible.

Maddie (12:02):
I love hearing that you guys were thinking about these barriers to entry because you’re exactly right. Those are problems that I noticed as a STEM teacher, things that I experienced in my classroom, like robots are really expensive. That kind of goes without saying teaching coding and robotics, like you said, is also very intimidating. I think that a lot of teachers feel like they don’t have the skills that they need in order to teach coding and robotics effectively. So it’s neat to hear that those are some of the sort of problems that you all were looking to address with.

Ashylnn Schindler (12:33):
And it was looking to address those from the beginning. So that is the, that’s the DNA of our company. That’s the DNA of what we do. It’s, it’s at the heart of our mission.

Maddie (12:42):
Awesome. So I’m really interested in this idea of virtual robotics. So, because I spent a lot of time on your website, like I can visualize it, but could you talk about what that looks like for listeners who might not understand what virtual robotics actually is?

Ashylnn Schindler (12:57):
Everybody’s Played a video, right? Most people have played a video game, or they have seen a video game being played. Maybe they’ve played Mario kart. Right, Now with Mario kart, you’re driving around a little car with your friends, but with CoderZ, you are, instead of using a hand-held controller to control that cart, you are typing commands. And in our case, you’re actually dragging blocks of text together to create a list of commands that then when you press play, Mario kart drives itself. So that’s what you’re looking at. When you’re looking at virtual robotics, you have a course, or you have a task that needs to be accomplished and you are going to drag over the commands that will then tell your virtual 3d robot what to do, and then it will do it.

Maddie (13:49):
And so for these, for the league that you guys have for these virtual, like robotics competitions, does that occur in some sort of like virtual atmosphere that you guys have created like a virtual environment? Or what does that exactly look like?

Ashylnn Schindler (14:04):
So that’s the lead. What we’re looking at is you are doing those tasks, right? And you get challenges sent to you. And so you doing those challenges and this is done in a team format. So you might have four people doing the challenge how quickly and how well you do that challenge that is going to correspond to points. And that is how the teams advance. And so the challenges are released at a specific time. They have to be then accomplished by a timeframe and you advance based on that. So that actually makes it really nice and flexible too, because it doesn’t have to be happening simultaneously. It can be happening asynchronously. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher in Arizona who has an afterschool club, whereas maybe somebody Boston is doing it during first period. You can do it when it’s convenient for you and for your team.

Maddie (14:58):
Oh, that’s right. Really neat. I really liked the idea of it being asynchronous.

Ashylnn Schindler (15:03):
That’s as, I mean, I’m sure that has become more of a topic of conversation given the pandemic. But it also makes it so that this competition is happening worldwide.

Maddie (15:14):
Yeah. That’s amazing. That’s really cool. I did not realize, I did not realize that you guys did this in a way that was asynchronous. I liked that. It seems to kind of still model the typical process. I know when I was younger, I used to go to robotics competitions and I, you know, very similar process of like we were given a challenge, you had to get, get points and stuff, but I really liked this neat idea of it being something that, you know, people across the world can be participating at the same time. I think that gets at the same, the same topic of conversation about these barriers to entry as well. It’s really expensive to get teams, to be able to travel to different, to different competitions and stuff for, to find a space, to host a local competition. So it’s really neat that you’re able to still create that competition environment in a virtual space.

Ashylnn Schindler (16:03):
Absolutely. I mean, the goal is to get as many hands in the pot as we can. We want everyone to take part in robotics. It’s fun, it’s exciting. It’s engaging. And, and these are the skills that we’re going to need our students to have going forward. Right. in our kids are going to have to solve problems that don’t exist yet. So we can’t prepare them for those problems. So what we can prepare them with are those problems loving skills. And that’s what CoderZ does really well.

Maddie (16:30):
Definitely. And, and, you know, another barrier to entry that you guys were talking about a few minutes ago was this idea that teaching robotics can be really intimidating for teachers. So do you have, what kind of like curriculum or resources do you have in place for teachers who maybe are really excited about the idea, but aren’t really sure how to get started.

Jordan Campbell (16:53):
Yeah, so I know that was me as a teacher, a hundred percent. I mean, that was me as a teacher. I know that when I picked my class up from library and I heard that they were learning coding, I was so excited, but in the back of my mind, I was like, wow, I’m kind of glad that the librarian’s teaching it. And not me because I didn’t know, you know how to do it. So when I started with CoderZ, that was my first question as well. And it truly is amazing the support that they have provided for the teachers. There’s a step-by-step curriculum. There is lessons that show the teachers, you know, exactly how to teach it other resources that they can pull in if they need extra support. So for example, if you’re going through one of our courses and you get stuck on something, they, in that outline say, Hey, check this out at this place, here’s a resource.

Jordan Campbell (17:52):
They can provide your support. There’s a pacing guide as well that shows you, you know, teach this on this day and then allow your students to complete the mission. So it really takes the pressure off of teachers. And I, you know, as an elementary school teacher look through it as at that lens, but I think no matter what grade level you are at knowing that you have that support and that guidance is so valuable there’s also in each mission, there is a way for teachers to unlock a possible solution. So if your students are completing a mission and they’re, oh my gosh, I have no idea. I’ve tried this a million times, which is what we want them to do. We want that productive struggle. We want them to problem solve. But say like, I might not know the solution myself, cause I, if I’m not familiar with coding, there is a resource on the actual mission the teacher can unlock and say, Hey, here’s one way to solve it. Why don’t you try another way? Here’s an example, like, look at this and then there might be another way you can solve it as well. So the support is it’s really phenomenal for teachers.

Maddie (19:07):
That’s nice. It sounds like it’s in addition to having a lot of support, there’s also flexibility in it as well. I liked that a lot because as a teacher, myself, who I am more comfortable teaching, coding and robotics, since that’s what I teach in my classroom it sounds like it would also be a product that would be really helpful for me as well, because I could kind of shape it and meet my own needs to my, to my classroom as well. So I like seeing that there’s a lot of support there for teachers who need it, but there’s also a great amount of flexibility. It seems like you guys were kind of striking that perfect balance there

Ashylnn Schindler (19:41):
Let’s call it low floor, high ceiling. That’s the phrase I’m starting to hear more in education. It’s really easy to get into, but once you’re in there, you can do so much with it.

Maddie (19:51):
Mm. I love that. I really like that a lot. So we’ve talked about some of the products that you guys have, right. So we’ve mentioned that you have these cyber robotics challenges. You guys have this league. What other, could you kind of talk about like all of the different products or programs that you guys offer?

Jordan Campbell (20:10):
So our products too were kind of scaffolded. So as we mentioned, we have the Amazon cyber robotics challenge and that is completely free. Back to school at the end of school, we were pushing it because it’s such a great engaging activity. And it puts students in an Amazon fulfillment center, Amazon and a store together to literally show kids, Hey, you order this on Amazon. This is how it gets to your door in 24 hours. And it shows the robot going and they’re the ones doing it. And then you have a live of this fulfillment center, which is incredible. So that’s the Amazon cyber robotics challenge. And then our courses are scaffolded. So we have our coders,the adventure cyber robotics, 1 0 1 cyber robotics, 1 0 2. And then we have our Python gym, which is the most advanced. So those are scaffolded. And then we’ve also recently introduced CoderZ Tutors and CoderZ at home too, just to make coding, as Ashylnn said, more accessible for all. I mean, I think that’s a constant that you’ll recognize about coderZ. We want to bring coding, robotics, STEM to everybody as many people as possible and give anyone and everyone access to it.

Maddie (21:39):
Hm. Yeah, I’m definitely noticing that that’s very much a consistent theme throughout our conversation today, just bringing you know, making coding and robotics more accessible to every student. That’s something that I’m particularly passionate about and feel like really closely aligns with my own personal mission as a teacher as well. I’m really interested in this Amazon challenge that you guys have. Something that’s kind of a consistent theme that I have on this podcast is about bringing authenticity into the classroom. I’m a project project based learning super fan. I try to teach project based learning as much as I can. And in being a STEM teacher, it’s really nice cause there’s a lot, lots of opportunities and flexibility for me to teach that way. But a big, a main pillar of project based learning, as you guys probably know, is authenticity.

Maddie (22:30):
And it’s something that I think as a teacher, I sometimes struggle with like bringing authenticity into my classroom. Sometimes it feels, it feels inauthentic to try to bring authenticity into the classroom. I’m not sure if that makes, makes complete sense, but authenticity in general tends to be a really big theme on this podcast. And when you talk about this Amazon challenge that you guys have created to me, that completely brings, brings in this idea of authenticity, where students are actually having an authentic experience as something that’s actually happening outside of the classroom, but they’re able to do it in a way that’s sort of safe and contained within the walls of the classroom as well. So could you talk a little bit more about what that, that offering looks like? I know you kind of mentioned it, but I’d love to hear a little bit more

Ashylnn Schindler (23:16):
So as you, as you said, authenticity is really key to the classroom, but it can be difficult to strike that note and that happy balance between making sure it’s something that they are really interested in. I mean, I can talk about ice cores till I’m blue in the face, but my, my students can’t visualize themselves going out in the field and collecting ice cores. Then it isn’t really going to feel authentic to them because it’s not something that they’re ever going to think that they’re ever going to actually do. However, most people have ordered something off of Amazon, right? A lot of people are prime members, so it’s not uncommon for them to go online, click a button. And then two days later it’s at their door. Now, the students are probably in their heads, not even wondering about the logistics point on behind it.

Ashylnn Schindler (24:00):
And so that’s what kind of Amazon cyber robotics challenge takes that opportunity to take something known and really get into the nuts and bolts behind it and show the students, the manpower, the technology behind it, that really makes it possible. So with the cyber robotics challenge, the students are presented with his usual and problem-based learning. They’re presented with a problem. There is a friend and they are having a birthday and they need to get a birthday present to them as soon as possible. If the given timeframe they have available resources. And now they’re going to learn how to code the Hercules robot, which Amazon does use in their climate centers to make sure that the packages are gotten to the right place so that it can actually be filled in that promise timeframe to get their friend their birthday present. And so the students have to do it.

Maddie (24:55):
Awesome. That’s really neat. It sounds like something that’s really relatable for kids, but also is a great sort of real world example of, of something that they could even be doing in a potential future career path. I know when I was exploring your website, something else that really excited me was the fact that you’re kind of inspiring kids to get excited and to prepare them for these future careers in stem. Besides just this Amazon Amazon program, which in itself is awesome enough, but is there anything else that you guys are doing to help prepare students for future stem careers?

Jordan Campbell (25:32):
All of our products platforms are promoting those 21st century skills, you know, collaborating, communicating, creativity, coding, and these products, the problem solving and the perseverance that it takes is what’s going to translate into any of these fields that they may pursue in stem or even out of stem. These students are able to make real world connections and when they’re able to do that, things become more meaningful to them. That’s what I’ve learned. So not only through that Amazon cyber robotics challenge, but the other challenges as well and Ashlyn uses this term that it just, it takes like grit. It’s that grit work that, you know, that’s invaluable and it’s, they’re working and they’re going to keep trying over and over again until they do succeed.

Ashylnn Schindler (26:28):
And to build off of what you just said, that really is kind of the core behind what we’re doing. And also ties back into that equitability of it and making robotics more accessible. Because if you’re a robotics teacher, you’ve got four robots, they are very expensive and you can only afford so many replacement parts. So you’re very careful about your students using them. But with the virtual platform, you can drive that robot off a cliff a dozen times until you need to call the school psychologist, because you’re a little worried about that student. But, and that makes it so that they can keep going through that troubleshooting and problem solving process over and over and over again. So that’s what we’re hoping our students take away from it. Problem solving is going to be a skill that you will use in any and every career that you go into because you’re always going to have problems to solve. So if we can encourage those skills in the students, then we are preparing them for future careers. In addition to that something that I think is interesting over 70% of coding related jobs, aren’t in technology, right? You need coding for everything and anything. You need coding for a website, you need coding for art, right? We’re starting to see non fungible art pieces being published. These are all including code and technology. Even if it doesn’t seem like it’s really in a field that is actually relevant to it.

Maddie (28:01):
Hmm. Definitely. That’s a really great point. And something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is this idea of technology, almost being a way of thinking. I think it’s very closely tied to those 21st century skills that you guys are talking about. Problem solving, communication, collaboration. So that’s something that is really top of mind for me these days. I think I also, oh, sorry, go ahead.

Ashylnn Schindler (28:26):
I just a term that I, we talk about computational thinking a lot.

Maddie (28:30):
Yeah. Yeah. Computational thinking is super important. Another thing that you, you didn’t explicitly name, but I also think is something that’s really important that you guys are doing. And that’s preparing students for stem careers is just the general act of increasing participation in computer science and exposing students to coding and robotics and stem is preparing students for stem careers, because like you said, students who maybe are really passionate about art, but find themselves really interested in stem as well can realize that there are these really neat intersections in those career paths. So I think that’s another really amazing way that you guys are preparing students for, for life outside of school and potential career paths in stem.

Jordan Campbell (29:14):
Yeah. And I think something that’s great about CoderZ is that due to it being so accessible, we are almost able to bring computer science and coding to robotics, to the student who never thought they had an interest in it. And what I mean by that is like, since it is, like you said, we can cross it with so many other content areas, math, art music, we’re able to bring this opportunity to someone who may not have had an opportunity before. And they realized they have a passion and a love for it. And I just think that is so incredible.

Maddie (29:52):
I love that. Well, I really, really enjoyed our conversation today. I hope that listeners are as excited about CoderZ as I am. I know I’m immediately going to try to figure out how I can get my school to participate in this. It sounds like a really neat opportunity for not only students, but teachers as well. The last question I have for you guys is how, and when, how, and where can listeners find out more about CoderZ?

Ashylnn Schindler (30:17):
Social media is everything yes. On all our socials, engage with us. And we’ll talk to you personally until you have smart, amazing, and wonderful. You are. Yeah. Check out our blog on gocoderz.com. All of my wonderful words will be on there. We also host regular webinars on ed web, which is a great free PD resource. If you are interested, they’ve got a community of about 2 million educators with all sorts of organizations, hosting webinars on there regularly. So we are on there. We just did one with snake robots, which I love and NASA that snake robots is really fun. And if you are interested, please check out the gocoderZ Amazon cyber robotics challenge. Again, it’s three hours of instruction. Plus an hour of a virtual field trip at an actual Amazon fulfillment center with an Amazon engineer. It’s free. It’s fun. It’s easy to get into. It’s the perfect activity for the first week of school. We really want everyone for that first week. It’s a chance to see what your students are made of and get them excited and doing something hands-on and really cool. Amazon is actually underwriting curriculum for any title one school that is interested. So if you already title one school, you can get access to CoderZ CS curriculum for free for six months.

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