Kid-friendly robots open new dimension in learning for younger Hillel students

Kid-friendly robots open new dimension in learning for younger Hillel students

Kid-friendly robots open new dimension in learning 
for younger Hillel students. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Kid-friendly robots open new dimension in learning for younger Hillel students. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

They are called Finches and resemble stingrays, but the 16 robots making a splash at Hillel Academy are providing valuable lessons in ingenuity and technology to students in third through fifth grade, according to administrators and faculty.

While Hillel has had a robotics program for its high school and middle school students for more than two years, the Finch program is the Orthodox Jewish day school’s first foray into a robotics curriculum for its younger pupils.

This year, Hillel was awarded a grant from Birdbrain Technologies, which creates the Finch, and received 15 robots on loan for a period of eight weeks and one robot to keep permanently.

The school has been maximizing the use of its Finches, according to Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel’s principal and education director. The robots are being used, he said, to teach not only engineering and mechanics, but also computational thought and coding.

In previous years, older students at Hillel were taught coding basics, and then were presented challenges to solve, Weinberg explained. That program was so successful, he said, the administration decided to research “how to bring programming down to the lower grades.”

The Finch, which was developed a few years ago at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE lab, has presented an ideal way to introduce the science and art of robotics to younger children, said Elky Langer, Hillel’s curriculum coordinator for grades K-12.

“It’s meant for kids,” Langer said. “It’s in one piece, so nothing falls off, and there is nothing breakable. It’s kid-friendly.”

The Finch was designed to support an engaging introduction to the art of programming, and allows students to write interactive programs. Its features include: light, temperature, and obstacle sensors, motors, and a full-color beak LED. It plugs into a computer, and requires no batteries.

The robots are supported through an informational website,, which includes software downloads, lessons, assignments and a community educational space for sharing ideas.

The loan program began in 2014 to provide a tool for teaching coding and computer science to students who might not otherwise have the chance to program a robot as part of their typical classroom experience. In 2014, the loan program reached more than 15,000 students and was expanded in 2015 to serve schools as well as libraries. Currently, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has fleets of Finch robots available for public use.

“Their goal is to get as many students as possible to use them,” said Langer, adding that the hands-on interaction with the Finches better engages children than does a typical coding lesson.

“This keeps kids from just staring at the computer all the time, and it also shows them that you can do something real,” Langer continued. “The Finch looks like a bird, and the beak can change colors.”

The Finches rotate among the third- to fifth-grade classrooms, and the children work in pairs to program the robots to obey various movement commands, including navigating through a maze and dancing.

Working in pairs also provides lessons in teamwork, noted Langer.

“They also learn trial and error, and patience,” she said.

Collaboration is a “21st-century skill,” Weinberg added.

“We have to make things relevant and exciting to our students,” he said. “And this is so relevant to them.”

Hillel administrators are considering purchasing several Finches once the loan period ends. The price for one Finch is $99, but there is a 10 percent discount for educators. Additionally, once the school demonstrates to Birdbrain Technologies how it used the robots, it will be eligible to apply for a grant to keep some of them permanently.

The lessons learned by working with the Finches have been significant, Langer said.

“It’s fun for the kids,” she said, “but it is also good for them to see what happens when you transfer actions from the screen to real life; they had to learn to deal with such concepts as gravity and friction once the robots starting sliding on [slippery] floors.”

Ella Greenfield, an outgoing third-grader, was happy to demonstrate what she had programmed her Finch to do.

“We’re learning how to make them move and to loop,” she said. “And they are so cute.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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