Book series helps Adams youngsters learn computer basics, bolster science lab dream

Hoosac Valley Elementary School first-graders were on hand recently to accept a $5,000 donation from Big Y Supermarkets to help fund a robotics lab for their school. Adults at rear are, from left, Kevin Grise, store director at Big Y in North Adams; paraprofessional Sue Knapp; first-grade teacher April Mazzeo; Principal Michelle Colvin; and technology specialist Geoff Kondel.

ADAMS — Without even realizing it, first-graders at Hoosac Valley Elementary School are learning basic computer skills.

First-grade teacher April Mazzeo has had her students read the "Hello Ruby" series of books that introduces programming and coding concepts without sitting in front of a computer.

The hands-on experience comes when the school's technology specialist, Geoff Kondel, gets the students working the keyboard.

"When we make the jump from books to computers, we start at a basic level with games like 'Angry Birds,' " he said. "I'm really surprised how fast they pick it up."

Added Principal Michelle Colvin: "They really don't know they are coding."

Confident of their technology prowess, Mazzeo's class created, with Kondel's expert help, a video to submit to Big Y Foods to enter the company's "Education Express Holiday Wish Sweepstakes."

The class submitted the video, with an accompanying letter, in December, explaining why its one holiday wish in 2018 would be to have a robotics lab as part of a schoolwide science lab.

The entry came up short — Hoosac Valley was among dozens of schools vying for one of two grand prizes of up to $10,000 — but it caught the eye of Big Y officials.

"Your letter touched our hearts," said John W. Schepp III, Big Y vice president of marketing. "We would like to make a donation of $5,000 payable to Hoosac Valley Elementary School ... toward the robotics lab equipment that was requested for your school."

Kevin Grise, store director for the Big Y in North Adams, presented a check to Colvin.

"This is an exciting time for the students and our school," Colvin told The Eagle.

In addition, Hoosac Valley Elementary is receiving another $5,000 grant, from Williams College, toward funding the science lab. Colvin calls the educational upgrade a "grand vision" for the prekindergarten through third-grade school.

She and Kondel said they are continuing to seek other funding sources while acquiring equipment and materials for the lab, which, she said, could be ready in the fall.

Colvin said the grand vision began several years ago when the faculty bolstered its educational skills under a federally funded Improving Teacher Quality grant, funneled through the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. That grant money has provided high-quality science training for teachers.

In addition, the elementary educators have participated in BRAINworks — the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network — to include the arts within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachings in the classroom.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.