Sunrise School Spends the Day Coding

Students with special needs are able to enjoy coding activities no matter their abilities

Across Pennsylvania, educators and legislators are investing big in computer science, for big reasons. Computing helps students perfect problem solving and critical thinking and is considered an essential skill for jobs of the future. Locally, educators are attending professional development opportunities focused on computing and coding, and Remake Learning’s CSforPGH workgroup is helping educators share computer science ideas, resources, and tools.

With all the positive movement in computer science education, we must remember that CS is pivotal for students of all abilities and backgrounds.

On Friday, December 13th, we brought this idea to our students at The Sunrise School for Exceptional Children in Monroeville, PA. Part of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s special education services, Sunrise School offers an enriching, challenging, and inviting environment to special education students, though individualized programming, vocational learning, art, music, physical education, and more. And on this special day, our students experienced a fun-filled and exciting day of coding.

The idea was first inspired by the Hour of Code initiative from, part of Computer Science Education Week. Then, our school received a very generous donation from The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation to purchase a large amount of Tech Ed materials and launch a school-wide lending library.

To start our lending library process, we scheduled an equipment training day for teachers during a two-hour delay in-service. The teachers all enjoyed “playing” with the equipment and were excited to use these new tools with their students. Many of the teachers had never seen these tools before and a few even said they were going to look into getting some of them for their children or grandchildren for the holidays. They were that impressed.

After the training, we wanted to introduce our students to the equipment in a way that was just as fun for them as it was for our teachers. We had heard about the Hour of Code, and our assistant Principal took the idea one step further: Why have just an hour of code when you could have an entire day for the students to explore? We also received an Ignite Grant from Remake Learning to support our Day of Code.

Because we are a school for special needs students, we had to come up with several different activities for the varying level of abilities at our school. That way, all our students would have a chance to have fun and participate. We developed a list of low-tech and high-tech activities for the day, along with a master schedule. We had activities located throughout the school plus several activities that could be completed in the classroom, for those students who may be too overwhelmed by the excitement to explore other areas.

Low-Tech Exploration

One of our low-tech activities prompted students to build a structure with gumdrops and toothpicks by following “lines of code.” Once finished, they could compare their structure to the example, to see if they followed their “code” correctly. Though, most students just had fun creating their own design!

Another low-tech activity utilized the Happy Maps lessons from This mapping activity equipped students with paper cutouts and a character, and they had to create a code to move their character to its target. For example, the student would place a paper “left” arrow and two “up” arrows on the table to move their character one space over and two spaces up. To expand on this idea, we created larger arrows and placed them on the floor of our cafeteria (which has a tile floor and looks like a large grid). This made it easier for students to keep their “code” neat and orderly. For students who could manipulate a mouse, we also had this activity available on computers.

High-Tech Fun

For more high-tech fun, we had different types of robots set up around the building:

  • We set up Bee Bots with a floor “map” for students to program them to. If they programmed them correctly, their bee would finish in exactly the same place it started. The students enjoyed being able to tell their bee where to go and figuring out how to get it to go where they wanted it to.
  • We also had Ozobots for students to experiment with. These tiny robots follow lines that the students draw with a marker on a piece of paper. The Ozobot would do different things depending on what color marker the student used. The kids found this particularly enjoyable because they could make their bot do all kinds of crazy patterns.

  • Our most popular activity used Spheros. We set up two different Sphero activities in the gym. Students who could control the bots better used them within a raised square platform that created a boundary. The Spheros had clear cups on top of them and the objective was to either knock your opponent’s cup off their Sphero or push them off of the platform, all while protecting your own cup. Students who were not able to control the bots that well enjoyed “driving” them all around the gym floor. This activity proved to be so popular that we used it again, with a modification, for our “Star Wars” activity day at the end of January. This time, students used larger Solo cups with neon straw “light sabers.” This idea came from one of our students, who even brought in the straws for us to use.

The students of Sunrise School had such a wonderful time exploring all the different CS technology we now have available. They even requested we have another day of code in the very near future. When we plan more activities around coding, we will keep in mind that coding doesn’t always have to include electronics and will remember that, at its core, coding should be fun and engaging for all students.