Dylan Besaw, 10, inspects a microbot he built, as part of an Escape the Planet Coding Challenge. Besaw and all other fifth-graders at Fort Belvoir Upper School participated in the two-day event before the holidays, on the school’s pajama day, in partnership with volunteers from AFCEA Belvoir Chapter, or the Armed Forces Communications Association.

5th graders Escape the Planet during coding challenge

Before the local schools started their long holiday break, fifth-grade students from Fort Belvoir Elementary School had two days of unique learning that took them to the ends of the Earth.
In the Escape the Planet Coding Challenge, students and volunteers from the Armed Forces Communications Association, or AFCEA, completed a fictional mission to Planet X. Throughout the mission, students learned computer coding; created a small computer called a microbit; created circuits and graphics, then added sound.

Jim Evans, AFCEA Belvoir Chapter president, said the collaborative effort, all possible through volunteers, showed the students’ enthusiasm for learning. “In some tasks, the students had a 10-minute deadline – however, they were already so smart and knew to work together, enough for them to complete it in three minutes,” Evans said.

“We are absolutely impressed by the fifth-graders,” he said, adding AFCEA would like to offer similar events in the future.
One student, 10-year-old Grace Levin, said proudly, “It was really fun and I learned to make a circuit.”

Nancy Rowland, the elementary school’s grant project director, said the coding challenge reached more than 160 students in seven classes. “It was months in the making and truly showed the collaboration between Fairfax County Schools, AFCEA and Fort Belvoir Elementary,” she said.

Tammi Sisk works with Fairfax County School’s Instructional Services Department, and supports education-tech integration, the Google environment and digital citizenship.
Sisk, who volunteered to help, said, “We really need students to take an interest in computer science, technology and science, to increase the pipeline to our future work force,” she said. “These kids are amazing.”

Daphnie Cantlon, a fifth-grade teacher at Belvoir Elementary, said, “The opportunity was great for us, especially just before the holidays,” she said. “It’s a field trip, of sorts, that not everyone gets to experience. The kids are gaining skills that shows them real-world examples of their potential. “Sometimes, children are naturally strong in math and science and this is a huge confidence booster for them. And, teachers are learning coding, too, from the students and volunteers.”

By Margaret Steele
Fort Belvoir Garrison Public Affairs