Through her work as an IT adviser in Solihull, Lin Hopkins became aware of the need for a program to drive the Valiant Turtle that could be operated by a switch. Here she explains how and why the program was developed and its successes.
In 1991 I came into contact, through my work as an advisory teacher for Information Technology, with Marc who was, at that time, eleven years old. He has the condition known as cerebral palsy, and has very little control over his body movements. He was unable to use a pen or pencil. I was working with him, his teachers, and his special support assistant as a result of an Educational Support Grant for Communication Aids. The grant was earmarked to fund the use of Information Technology where it would enable children to communicate and to access the National Curriculum.
Marc could, with a deal of effort on his part, operate parts of a computer keyboard and has been doing this on a Master 128 for some years. However, we had now provided him with a Special Access A3000 computer, and he was learning to operate a word processor with a single switch.
I wanted to open up more of the curriculum to Marc than word processing. I was already a great advocate of the use of Valiant Turtles and Roamers with pupils of all ages, having used them with children from nursery age upwards. With young children they are invaluable as a tool for learning about space and direction, for estimating distances, and for gaining experience of number.
Marc needed all of these things, probably more so than able bodied children, because he had not been able to move around or handle objects in the same way that they can. And one of his personal ambitions was to draw. However, it was difficult to see how Marc could gain access to using a robot – he could not operate the keys on Roamer, and typing into a program like Logotron Logo or Dart to operate a turtle on a Master 128 computer would be painfully slow. What was required was a switch operated program which would work on the Archimedes range of computers.
At this time Solihull were putting Archimedes computers into primary schools, and there was also a general need for a mouse operated program to work the Valiant Turtle from these machines.
I contacted Gary Atkinson of Kudlian Soft and he told me that the mouse and switch operated program which I had in mind was feasible. My authority gave me the go ahead to make the investment. I designed the program and the software known as TURTLE was written.
TURTLE can be operated by mouse or single switch. There are four “pages” or levels, giving progression from using the four simple movements of Forwards, Backwards, Left 90 and Right 90:
through to writing procedures:
There is a menu where the teacher can choose whether the program will work from switch or mouse, and the length of the turtle’s step for the first three screens. On the fourth screen one unit of measurement is set at one centimetre.
Because the software had been specifically designed for Marc, he was the first pupil to use it. The first session exceeded all my expectations. He was very excited at having control of the turtle and the motivation made him more accurate with his switch than we had seen previously. He very quickly got the hang of how it worked and moved on to screen 3 where there is a greater choice of angles of turn – 30, 60 and 90 degrees. These are referred to as small, medium and big turns.
I told Marc to “just doodle” to get practice. However, his first doodle looked like the roof of a house and we spent part of the rest of the session completing the drawing, including a garage. On two occasions I lifted the turtle and moved it because the occasion warranted finishing the drawing. To say that Marc was delighted with the result is an understatement. We finished the session with a large soft ball and a chair, and Marc scored a goal with the turtle. A world cup match winning goal could not have caused more pleasure.
There are, of course, very many more things Marc is doing and will do. He is drawing rectangles, making flights of stairs and wants to be more accurate with triangles. He is exploring Shape and Space, and geometry will be within his grasp. I should love to be there when he eventually discovers the rule for turns when drawing regular polygons of any number of sides.
And with other children? The program is proving its use with key stage one and two pupils. Young children enjoy using the mouse to make the turtle knock over skittles, or to eat someone’s toes. In fact, to explore all the things children should explore with robots. Older children at key stage 2 are surprising their teachers with the insights they gain into shape, space and work on angles. And some year seven children with moderate learning difficulties in another school in the borough gave their maths teacher food for thought when they painlessly discovered how to use Repeat and brackets. That teacher has decided to use a Turtle or Roamer with his mainstream pupils as well, to help them with work on angles.
All this work has been helped along with a set of Roamer cards. Whatever the children do in the early stages, they set out the message using the cards. This proves to be a great help in knowing what commands to give and to making appropriate adjustments when necessary. It proves particularly beneficial in giving children insight into the benefits of using Repeat. When the teacher gives gentle help so that the four parts to drawing a square are each grouped with a big space between each one, all is revealed to the children. The children find that a repeat message uses less cards, takes up less floor space and makes far less work.
TURTLE will work with Archimedes computers if they have a serial port fitted. It uses the same Valiant Turtle as is used with the BBC and Nimbus range, apart from the lead from the communicator to the serial port. This lead is supplied with the TURTLE software and is included in the price. The price of £25 covers a primary school site licence. Details of authority licences are available by contacting the address below. TURTLE is obtainable from: Solihull Unit for Information Technology