Coded Communications Thanks to Teacher Collaboration

Time is tight in the elementary schools to meet all the expectations of our state’s science standards. So when opportunities knocks for collaboration with teachers who have face time with students outside of their allotted science time – I answer! Recently, Francis Wyman library and media specialists, Michelle Ardizonni and Megan Carney sat down with me to develop some station experiences for our fourth and fifth grade students to explore some different ways humans communicate through code, a learning expectation that overlaps Computer Science objectives as well as MA STE standard 4-PS4-3: Develop and compare multiple ways to transfer information through encoding, sending, receiving, and decoding a pattern.


Student investigate how the cable transmits light signals from one end to the other before encoding a three letter word, and sending it to a partner to receive and decode via morse code. Francis Wyman fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Janis looks on.

Building on the existing structure of table stations around their elementary school’s library, we selected four different methods of communication that required students to encode and/or decode a pattern shared with them by a fellow classmate with the help of a key.

After some brainstorming, research, and materials gathering we settled on four coding models outside of the “coding” realm students have come to expect through their hour-of-code / LEGO robotics experiences. In each instance, we reinforced the language of the standard “encode, send, receive, and decode” when introducing the materials and in the on-site reference sheets students could consult at each station.


Mrs. Ardizonni introduces the key vocabulary posted at each station: encode, send, receive, and decode.

Before exploring the stations, students were read a simple book from EPIC sharing different methods of using light and sound to convey a message. Written for first graders, Meg and Michelle used the imagery and simple text to probe students current understanding of signals such as stoplights, light houses, tornado sirens, and emergency vehicles of how all these technologies send coded messages received and decoded by humans to help us make smart, safe decisions.


Along with the read-aloud of the text, “Light, Sound, and Communication” on EPIC, Mrs. Carney had a wide selection of sound and light non-fiction texts on display and for check-out.

Students were sorted and told to move to four different stations with the expectation that students would likely only spend their time at that one station. Over the course of four sessions (after book selection and check-out of course) students used…

Morse code to encode, send, receive, and decode” a beam of light sent through a fiber optic cable using flashlights…


Fiber Optic Wire / Morse Code Station

Bells to represent signals on boats, indicating which sides they would be passing fellow seafarers in harbors on…


Bells and Boating Station


Bit bracelets demonstrating how binary codes can be used to communicate letters…


Bit Bracelet Station

And 0’s and 1’s to fill grids and generate pixelated images of letters as well as illustrations.


Pixelation Station

After a few days Michelle and Meg tweaked the experiences to make them easier for students to execute and complete in the amount of time available (only about 15 minutes!) The stations stayed out for one month while the students rotated through each station, roughly one a week for three-four weeks.


Students decoding the numerical pattern to construct their pixelated Saturn. The pattern was later modified by Michelle Ardizonni to be completed in a shorter amount of time and with a larger grid which improved student decoding success rates.

We are freely sharing these resources in a Google Folder accessible here for use and/or adaptation by other educators. For more resources produced through the Burlington Science Center visit our website and the K-5 curriculum tab.




About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in 3-5, Classroom Activities, Curriculum, Digital Tools, NGSS, Professional Reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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