Sugar on a Stick Helps Kids Learn How to Learn


Youth and computersTHUNDER BAY – Watching a young child determined to learn her ABCs using Youtube is to see that for young people, technology is something that fits their lives like a glove. The personal computer, the Ipod touch, and Ipad are tools that young people see as naturally there in many cases.

Many children are exposed to technology at an early age, but few are taught how to harness the power of technology to drive their own learning and their future. A group of students from North Dakota State University, Fargo, and their advisor, Dr. Kevin Brooks, chair of the English department, are working to change that. They’re partnering with local elementary schools, beginning with Madison Elementary School in Fargo, N.D.

Dr. Brooks and a team of NDSU students have worked with Tech Team students at Madison School for 14 weeks, using a free, open-source software platform called Sugar, which contains software applications that allow kids to explore math, language arts, science, social science and computer programming. For an hour after school each week, NDSU students and elementary school students used the program for activities that included: studying geometry with a software program called Turtle Art; building a Rube Goldberg machine with a program called Physics; and learning about computer programming using a program called Etoys. The NDSU group’s program is funded by a Community Project grant from the Office of the President at NDSU.

The program culminated with Sugar Day in March, where a dozen students at Madison Elementary School in Fargo became teachers themselves, showing other students what they’ve learned from the program called “Sugar,” as part of the school’s Tech Team. With Sugar Day, these young techies passed along their knowledge to 25 fourth graders, to inspire another group of students for future careers.

At Madison School, the budding techies taught other students to use the computer software’s physics tools, pass a fulcrum challenge by balancing objects on a beam, build a conveyor belt or pulley, and put all the pieces together into a Goldberg Machine. Students also received “Sugar on a stick,” which is a computer flash drive loaded with 20 activities, including music software, a typing tutor and puzzle games.

“They are learning how to learn. We essentially present them with a challenge or problem, and they have to solve it. We might be laying the foundation for a career in a technical field such as computer programming, management information systems or technical support,” said Brooks, “but we also want to make sure they have fun learning and solving problems.”

Not only are the elementary school students learning from this unique program, so are the NDSU students. The program provides NDSU students with research opportunities in teaching, technical communication, and computer science. The project team includes graduate and undergraduate students.

The NDSU students say working with such a program provides many rewards. “We learned mainly how hard, yet rewarding, a literacy initiative like this one is for the community and students,” said grad student Chris Lindgren, who serves as project manager. “If we can also share our research findings, as we serve the community, I think we can tease apart how important it is to help the younger generations to become smarter users of computer technology.”

“We have seen kids persist through difficult challenges,” said Professor Brooks. “They will shout out, ‘This is too hard,’ when trying to make a shape in Turtle Art, but then they will pair up and solve the problem.” The group has also seen a glimpse of the social dynamics that can plague technical fields. “Teachers and parents need to understand the social dynamics that lead to over and under-representations in certain career fields start as early as 4th and 5th grade.”

Brooks says they are distributing “Sugar” to Fargo elementary schools, beginning with Madison School. “This Sugar Day event was an opportunity for the Tech Team to share their knowledge with a wider segment of the school. We hope this event will interest the 4th graders to participate in Tech Team next year. We (Sugar Labs @ NDSU) will be going to Jefferson Elementary School for a four-week project in April and hope to be able to host similar events that will be open to the public.”

“Sugar” is an extension of the One Laptop per Child program that provides underprivileged children from across the world with affordable laptops and free educational software. Visit;

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