WATERVLIET — Grace Chisek and Abby Lomoro may only be seventh-graders, but they say they’re already preparing for the real world. 

The two attend Watervliet Middle School and are in a project-based learning class in which they learn about an array of science, technology, engineering and math topics. 

The class is one of about nine in Berrien County that have started teaching students how to code small programmable devices called micro:bits thanks to a grant to the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency from the Upton Foundation.

Abby said it didn’t take them long to figure out how to code them. 

“When the class started, Mr. Grob gave us supplies and we just sort of figured it out,” she said.

Grace said that’s what the class is mostly about.

“You’re going to need to know how to problem-solve things in college,” she said. 

Teacher Chris Grob said learning coding through online software doesn’t compare to learning with the micro:bits. 

“It’s great when they can actually start physically manipulating and doing things. This is not just a toy. They’re legitimately making things happen here and the diversity of this little piece can do so much,” Grob said. 

The students use the micro:bit website to go through lessons and projects. 

In one project, the students figured out how to program their micro:bits to read temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed and even soil moisture.  

Aiden Smith programed a micro:bit to play a song from a video game he likes.

“It took a couple of days. At first I didn’t know what the bottom part of the music was, then I found out that the bottom is the background and that’s why it didn’t sound right,” he said. 

Aiden said when he enjoys this kind of work and said he wants to join the robotics team when he gets to high school.  

Anya Sexton and Berenice Marin figured out how to play rock, paper, scissors with their micro:bits. They programmed their micro:bits so they work together to show different symbols and decide who is the winner. 

Another micro:bit project allowed students to figure out how to run a small fan. 

“I told the students that it was great they got the fan running, but now can you figure out how to control the speed?” Grob said. “Then all of a sudden a half hour later, ‘We have 10 speeds. Watch!’”

He said the students are constantly pushing the limit by not just learning how to code, but by learning about artificial intelligence, global issues and new science breakthroughs. 

“Within their projects they’re building something, making something, whether it be a website or a presentation. They do some amazing things,” Grob said. 

Watervliet Superintendent Kevin Schooley said getting students into STEM education programs in middle school just increases the likelihood that they’re engaged in those higher-order thinking skills and problem solving later in life.

“The more kids we can expose that to, I think the better not only we as a district are, but (the students) are as learners because they’re discovering,” he said. “This is solving problems, getting involved and they love it.”

Schooley said the partnership between the school and Berrien RESA is great too. 

“They have experts here that they can deploy into our district for the benefit of our kids. That relationship is huge. Not just them securing the grant, but their commitment to the kids and our staff,” he said.  

Those experts, John Philips and Joe Rommel, have trained teachers across the county to help students learn how to code the micro:bits.

“The micro:bits come from England. They gave a million of them out to every seventh-grader in the country a couple of years ago. There were some good outcomes from that so we thought we’d model that here and try to have our own Berrien County version,” Rommel said. 

He said most of the program was funded through the $30,000 grant and more than half of the districts in the county have opted in, with hopefully more to join in the future. 

“If we want our games and apps to reflect all of the diverse needs and examples of our students, we have to have all of our students have the opportunity to try them out. If we get all of them involved, or at least initially get some the exposure, that’s great,” Rommel said.  

Schooley said he thinks programs like this increase the likelihood of students taking higher-level classes once they get to high school, like AP computer coding. 

“Bottom line, it’s just good learning,” he said. 

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman