A few months ago, we closed down our Grands Rapids office on a Wednesday in order to spend the day exploring and learning with nearly fifty kindergartners through sixth graders. The goal was simple: expose the kids to career possibilities in STEM-based fields. The challenge was figuring out how to do that in a way that engaged the entire age range.

It all started with a simple email. Nicole DeVries, the summer camp director for Roosevelt Parks Ministries contacted us back in May and we couldn’t have been more excited to participate in such a day. The day went so well that we want to share what we did in case it helps anyone who may stumble across this blog post.

Brainstorming: Round 1

We ended up doing two brainstorming sessions: a digital version and analog.

The first brainstorming session was done in early June over Google Hangouts and included people from all of our locations. We spitballed various ideas for an hour which ran the gamut of digital engagement for the kids: an introduction to programming, programming lego mindstorms, programming other kid-friendly robots, making a game, having kids help us design a game, having a robot race or scavenger hunt. To help whittle the list down, there was some research that needed to be done.

One of the things we found out, is that kid-friendly programmable robots are really expensive. We had access to a few through our team (many peeps at Mutually Human have kiddos) and through GRMakers (a community run maker-space that Mutually Human sponsors), but they were all different. Not only would our team need to ramp up on how all of the different devices work so we could help the kids, we would have needed at least a dozen more too and likely more than that.

We also realized we didn’t have enough computers for the kids to work at. We’re a pretty lean operation so everyone has their own work laptops (which are Macs), but there’s not really a surplus of workstations waiting to be used for an entire summer camp of kids. Given the age range of kids coming in, we also weren’t sure who would be comfortable with our Macs or computers in general. Going digital was risky because we might alienate some kids. It also would have incurred a really large cost for the day if we had to buy workstations and robots for the kids to work independently or in small groups. So, what’d we do? We took a step back.

Brainstorming: Round 2

In the weeks that followed the first brainstorming session, we set up a Slack channel so we could share any moments of inspiration or research that we had. One of those moments was when we took a step back to consider how to engage with the kids. We realized that we had just a few hours – so we decided to split up the kids into two groups, a morning group and an afternoon group.

I watched a bunch of YouTube videos and found a bunch of online resources for teaching computer science concepts without any kind of computer. It was really inspiring to see the amount of thought and creativity that people around the world have put into this. I started pasting links into Slack.

A few weeks later we held a second brainstorming session in the Grand Rapids office. It was a smaller group, but we were getting closer to the day, so it was really the people who were able to dedicate their time to running it. The squad was our designer Lori, one of our engineers Matt, and myself.

We found a Treasure Hunt activity on CSUnplugged.com which teaches kids about finite automata using “a fictitious pirate story which leads to the unlikely topic of reasoning about patterns in sequences of characters”.

Treasure Hunt

Treasure Hunt activity takes a complex-sounding concept, Finite State Automata (FSA), and makes it accessible to all ages. Here’s a summary from the activity’s PDF on CSUnplugged.com:

Computer programs often need to process a sequence of symbols such as letters or words in a document, or even the text of another computer program. Computer scientists often use a finite-state automaton to do this. A finite-state automaton (FSA) follows a set of instructions to see if the computer will recognise the word or string of symbols. We will be working with something equivalent to a FSA—treasure maps!

The activity consists of four main things: islands, pirates, a map, and symbols that represent instructions.

Here’s a map of islands:

Island Maps

Oh, and one of the islands is treasure island. This is where all of the pirates are trying to get. We wanted to have each kid be able to be a treasure island hunting pirate as well as to be an island so we ended up with 10 islands and we ran the activity twice for each group of kids.

Here’s were a few of our islands:

Island

Each island had two symbols associated with it: A and B. Each of these symbols represented an instruction. A pirate would arrive at the island have to choose A or B. The island would then have to tell the pirate where to go next. The instructions were always the same. The kids each had a map and kept track of each of their decisions. They were all trying to get to treasure island of course and once they got there, they weren’t done. They were sent back to the beginning to try to find a new route to get to treasure island.

A and B

Islands: Having the kids create their own

Lori had a fantastic idea during our second brainstorm: We don’t just do computer-science-y things at work. Programming on the computer and tinkering with algorithms is just one piece to designing and making software for people to use. The most important thing we do is spend time understanding the problem, designing the experience, and asking lots of questions. Could we expand the Treasure Hunt activity to engage kids in that part of what we do?

Yes, we can!

We decided that we’d that the first part of the Treasure Hunt activity would be having the kids design their own islands. Not only would it be fun and engaging, but we could ask them to think about where they’d sleep, what they’d eat, what they’d do for fun, and who’d be on the island with them. Maybe they’d have family and friends live with them or visit. Maybe they’d have lots of animals or fun pets on their islands. We used our questions to start the process of asking questions, but the kids took those questions and ended up generating their own – and some were even better than ours!

Kids drawing their own islands

One of my favorite features created by a camper was an island creating device. This way if anyone needed an island he could make them one, or two, or three, or as many islands they’d like. No one need be without an island!

Snacks and a break

Designing an island takes a lot of creative juices. Before we could move onto the actual Treasure Hunt, we needed to replenish the campers. We planned a twenty minute break for the kids where we provided healthy snacks, water, and brain rest time.

Snacks and a break

The Treasure Hunt

Once the break was over we gathered all of the kids and asked for a few volunteers to describe their islands. Initially, there just a couple of kids that wanted to share. Everyone else was a little shy, but that changed after the first island designer got up and shared their ideas with everyone. We ended up only doing this with the morning session because so many kids ended up wanting to share and we just didn’t have the time.

Island show and tell

We were now ready for instructions for the Treasure Hunt. We separated the group into two more sub-groups: those who would be islands and those who would be pirates. The would-be-islands got to take their island drawings to a wooden island stand that we made. They also got their A and B cards that they got to use to direct pirates based on what symbol they chose.

The would-be-pirates all got eye patches, a map, and a marker. The islands were all named, color coded, and numbered. Since the range of ages might include those who may not read yet we wanted to make sure everybody could find their way around the islands. We set the pirates off to the first island and then they got to pick from A and B. As they bounced around they kept track as best they could as to what choice led them from one island to the next.

Once they discovered Treasure Island, the pirate would get a star sticker on their map to indicate they found it! Then, they were sent back to the start island and were asked to make difference decisions to see if they could find a new route to Treasure Island.

I couldn’t believe how much fun the kids appeared to be having. After about 15 – 20 minutes we stopped, got everyone back in the middle, asked the pirates how many made it to Treasure Island, and then switched groups. To ensure we weren’t going to pass around pink-eye all of new pirates got their own fresh pirate eye patches. We did the activity again.

Volunteers

We didn’t know how many chaperones the summer camp would have so our Mutually Human team took part in assisting with kids and being paired up with the islands. It turned out that Nicole brought a team of volunteer chaperones to help with the kid and the activities. This seemed to work out really well for the kids because there were enough volunteers to help the kids with each activity, provide individualized attention, allow the kids to take frequent bathroom breaks as needed, and to interact with the kids throughout the day.

The takeaway about volunteers is that you can never have too many.

Wrapping up the activity

After we ran the Treasure Hunt activity twice we got everyone together and spent a few minutes talking about what we just did. To keep the kids engaged, we did it in a form of questions more so than statements. We tried to tie in all of the things that we did with what we do at Mutually Human. We ask lots of questions, we think about how people will use technology, and we design an experience for them, much like they designed their islands. Then, we build it and we work with the computer to make a lot of decisions to ensure that people find the apps we make easy to use both friendly and fun.

As the kids packed up for the day, they all got their own “booty” bag – they thought “booty” bag was hilarious – which included fun pirate themed takeaways.

All in all, the day was a lot of fun for the kids and for us adults. It felt good to close down the office and to set expectations with clients that we were dedicating this day to a group of great kids. After the day, I was so energized. It was a lot of work, but it felt good to do something in service of others. We have kept all of our artifacts so we can do this again with more kids.

Group pic 1

Group pic 2

If you stumbled upon this post and are interested in organizing an activity like this and have any questiosn: Don’t hesitate to let us know. We’re happy to share our digital assets that went into this activity and if you’re local in the Grand Rapids, MI area we’d even be happy to lend you our wooden stands (but you can get by without those). If you have any questions don’t hesitate to let us know.

Have a great week!