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Published March 27 2012

Learning sweetly: Madison students get a screenful of Sugar program

FARGO – It took Vinny Phan a little while to figure out the digital conveyor belt.

“When I did it, it just kind of drooped down and it didn’t even turn,” he said.

But with a little tinkering and exploration, the Madison Elementary fifth-grader worked out the kinks.

Phan was one of the budding technology aficionados who helped fellow students navigate a series of software challenges Tuesday during Sugar Day at Madison.

The program, a joint effort between the school and a group of North Dakota State University students and faculty, aimed to develop technological literacy and problem-solving skills at an early age.

“One of our main goals is essentially to nurture a smarter computing culture through kids,” said Chris Lindgren, a master’s student in English who directed the initiative. Five other NDSU students also worked on the project.

Lindgren, who studies computer programming as a literacy skill, said he became interested in developing the program after learning of Sugar. The open-source operating system was designed to be simple and compatible with the low-cost computers used in the One Laptop per Child program, a global technology access initiative. It includes applications ranging from physics-based puzzles to music to keyboarding.

A handful of fourth- and fifth-grade students worked after school with NDSU students for a few months to learn the programs so they could help their peers.

About 25 fourth-graders participated in the event Tuesday, spending about 90 minutes in school solving problems and taking home “Sugar on a stick” – the operating system and applications on a USB drive.

NDSU’s Sugar team first began working with Madison students in 2010 and will expand to Jefferson Elementary this spring.

Kevin Brooks, chair of NDSU’s English department and one of the program’s organizers, said the activities help foster independent problem-solving skills.

“These are not activities where kids are just filling in the blanks,” he said. “These are creation activities.”

Chris Gast, student performance strategist and technology coach at Madison, said the program – which gives students free reign to explore, solve challenges and help one another – is a fresh approach to learning.

“I think we spend a lot of time in the classroom saying, ‘We’re going to do it this way,’ ” he said. “Here, we’re giving it to them and saying, ‘You’re going to pick it up, you’re going to learn and you’re going to teach each other how to do different things.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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