Inspiring Rock Stars: Music & Code
A CONVERSATION WITH ANTHONY MACPHERSON SAINT ANDREW JUNIOR SCHOOL,
ANTIGONISH, NS Photo by Yvette de Wit
Imagine a packed auditorium, standing room only. You move through the crowd working your way to the front
where the fans' energy is electric. The lights go down and the sound of the room erupts. You look up to the dark stage to hear a single strum of a guitar - then silence. The person in back of you taps your shoulder like he’s Rolling Stone’s no.1 pick for the greatest guitarist ever. “I’m just like Jimi now” he boasts laughing and strumming his smartphone. The lights go up to reveal iROCK the first socially orchestrated Android and iOS interactive robotic band. Sounds like a near fiction story published by Wired right? Maybe, we'll have to wait and see. For now, we know the students at Saint Andrews Junior School are on the right track.
The students of Saint Andrew's Junior School (SAJS) in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, may not be filling auditoriums with the fictional iROCK products, but the initiatives happening in the SAJS makerspace under the leadership of teachers Anthony MacPherson and Catharine MacDonald, is inspirational and are proving that coding can bring students together, build ownership and create the foundation for lifelong 21st
century skills. Anthony MacPherson is a music teacher at SAJS. We asked him what makes
coding, robotics and maker education so magical at his school. This year we have been offering Makerspace as part of the Technology Education cycle as well as an after school program. The space serves 575 students from grades 5 to 8.
Our students are a diverse cross section of youth from grades 5-8. During the scheduled times, it’s the grade 7 students who come in groups of 8-13 that are assigned to work in our makerspace as part of their regular
schedule. The after school group is a good mix of 5 boys and 7 girls of varying backgrounds and ages, whose imaginations ignite every time they walk into the space. Students are using Green screens to create videos for French, Social Studies and English to name a few. This allows for an extra level of immersion and integration of some of the available technologies in the school environment.
Students light up when new projects are introduced. They value the ability to be independent, come up with
their own solutions and have a true sense of accomplishment when they are successful. These students
appreciate having ownership over their progress, from start to finish. We have seen how using robotic
tools, like Lego Mindstorm EV3, helps students build and design not only with their hands, but with code.
The brilliant thing about robotics in the schools is that it moves students away from solitary work with a computer to actively designing and socializing with each other.
We are seeing students not only increasing their understanding of basic code structure, but they are
working more collaboratively to solve problems as a team. This is a perfect example of how computer programming was traditionally thought of as being an isolated practice, when in truth it is no different than writing a story that is later used to create, or inspire, another piece of art like a film or song. We need coders,
designers and builders to collaborate to bring new innovation to life. Coding is so much more than learning rules, syntax and symbols. It's the foundation for 21st century skills and helps students take more ownership over projects. These are skills our students need to be competitive in the economies of the tomorrow. That's what we're doing here, they're not learning code… they’re coding to learn. Many classes outside of the makerspace, however engaging, often don’t have the same level of
Over the years we have had several red zone students who have really gravitated towards the program. We
often get students who have difficulties engaging in the regular classes; nonetheless, they are proving to not
only be engaged in the projects, but most have been very successful. This is a real win for everyone.
We’ve been challenging the students to step out of their comfort zone and start developing robotic solutions to accomplish tasks that range from automatic light switches to self-strumming guitars. Many of the students
are involved in block based coding initiatives using Lego Robotics, Finch, Hummingbird and of course Scratch. The students who worked on the light switch project were some of our older students, grade 8s. They had remarked that in some of the buildings around town, there are lights that detect when
someone enters the room and turn off once they leave saving energy. They decided to make something similar using a servo motor.
The group duct taped the motor next to the light switch, programmed a hummingbird using scratch and added a sound sensor to detect the noise of the door opening to trigger the servo
to activate the light. This was a practical application of coding with Scratch and was a great
way to apply concepts like “if/then/else” and things like sound thresholds using less than or equal to.
The self-strumming acoustic guitar robot stemmed from the group’s desire last year to make a “Robot
Band.” Many of the students who are part of the makerspace also take private music lessons or participate in
the school’s band program that I facilitate.
The Robot Band project was coded using Logo Mindstorm EV3 robot. The students determined there was a big hurdle using the programming of the EV3 which was how to strum different rhythms at a variety of meters
depending on what song they wanted the robot to strum. The strumming mechanism was pretty ingenious.
Initially students attempted to have a motor that rotated an arm forward, reverse, forward and reverse. This
mechanism proved to be very clunky and didn't sound very “musical” since the arm had to physically change
direction. Their solution was to build different blocks of code to execute each strum.
Knowing what didn’t work helped the team figure out what would and eventually they designed a crank
mechanism that spun in only one direction. The difference was heard in the pivot point causing their
mechanical hand-pick to strum backward for half of a rotation and forward for the rest of the rotation.
This is similar to the way the crank arm moves in a crankshaft piston. This enabled students to use a
simple loop and pause code block to strum in whatever pattern they wanted instead of the clunkier and
more sporadic forward-reverse code they had written first time making the sound more fluid.
This may not be the iROCK band imagined at the beginning of this discussion, but in the future this project
could inspire students to consider they are only limited by their imaginations. Because once they learn the value of collaboration and what's possible with code they very well could create an interactive
robotic band. The goal for our makerspace in the remaining months is to continue on-going projects and initiatives while starting to incorporate Raspberry Pi microcomputers as coding stations. Thanks to the help and funding of Brilliant Labs together with the support of co-program directors Kim Desveaux and Sarah Ryan, the SAJS is ready to offer students the guidance they need to transition from using block code to programming languages like Python. This transition will allow students to develop their programming skills to create projects with LEDs, motors and maybe someday soon we can move into the IoT landscape. It’s a great time to be a maker and inspire rockstar coding.