Friday, August 11, 2017

Connecting Coding to Robotics with Sphero

I love teaching robotics and coding! Sometimes, learning to code can be a struggle for students if they can’t see a direct application to the work they are doing. As a teacher, I wanted an easy-to-use robot I could incorporate into my classes and Makerspace that would help students see coding in action. After researching options and reading reviews, I decided on the Sphero SPRK. I love the Sphero because coding the robot is easy, even for beginners. Simply connect the robot to your device via Bluetooth, and start coding with the free Lightning Lab app. The Sphero is durable, too; it can handle a drop off with a surface under 3 feet high, go for a swim, and be used with paint! The Sphero SPRK model was $129. Through Donors Choose, I was able to acquire two Sphero SPRKs for my classroom and Makerspace two years ago. I teach students in grades 6, 7, and 8, and the Spheros are one of the most popular items at our Makerspace. Students have created paintings with our Spheros, built obstacle courses in hallways and classrooms, and have taken them for a swim!

Our local university, Black Hills State University, hosts GEAR UP in the summer. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education by providing States and local community-education partnerships six-to-seven year grants to offer support services to high-poverty, middle and high schools. A component of the South Dakota GEAR UP Program includes a 3-week Summer Honors Program for students from the grant’s Partner Schools. From and Peggy Diekhoff, BHSU GEAR UP Project Manager

I was asked to teach a technology course for the GEAR UP class at BHSU this summer. My 2 weeks of class time was to be focused on programming. My students would be in grades 9, 10, 11, or 12 next school year. Many students did not have experience with coding or robots in their schools. I knew that I would have access to LEGO Mindstorm robots, Sphero SPRK Robots, CodeCombat licenses, iPads and laptops.

At the start of our class time, students answered questions about their experience with coding and robotics, as well as their interest in different opportunities in class the next 2 weeks. On the first and second day of class, students were introduced to the Hour of Code through’s video What Most Schools Don’t Teach and coding lessons with the Hour of Code.

During the first week of class, the first and third class periods could work on LEGO Mindstorms in groups of 2-3 (if they had an interest in robotics on the survey). Alternatively, students could work on (link) curriculum, different course levels were available in the areas of Game Development, Web Development, and Computer Science. The second and fourth class periods could work on Sphero SPRK Robots in groups of 2-3 if they were interested in robotics or the CodeCombat lessons mentioned above. Students had access to iPads with the Lightning Lab app installed. They were encouraged to figure out how the Sphero operated and then to combine code blocks to cause their robot to create a shape. Students figured these tasks out quickly and began building their own obstacle courses. Students had cardboard, painters tape, and small empty storage containers they could use to create their courses. Students designed a maze with multiple entrances and exits, a maze with a ramp, and a course that was more like a race track with a ramp.

While working in their small groups students began to connect the code blocks to control the Sphero. Students immediately made connections to the different Hour of Code activities they had tried and the mechanics of the Sphero programming. Each day that students came back they scouted out their same iPad from the day before so they could continue to work on their code. Once students had enough code to get the Sphero through one of the courses, they would continue to refine the code, working on making it faster, adding noises and different colors.

After the first week, the different groups switched. The students who started with the Spheros and moved to the LEGO Mindstorm robot and software had a much easier time programming their robots than the first group. Students who worked with the Spheros before attempting the more advanced Code Combat lessons were better able to problem solve and persevere as they learned more complex coding statements.

The Spheros were such a hit that I brought my 2 Spheros from school the last few days of class. Students who had expressed no interest in learning robotics during our time together were asking to work on the Sphero with other students and creating code with the help of their peers.

At the end of our time together, I asked students questions about the Spheros. Students who used the Spheros in class said that the Sphero helped them learn to code. Many students said they would like to have Spheros at their school. I asked students what they would tell others about Spheros if they were thinking of using them to learn about coding or robotics: “I would say that Spheros offer a simple method of coding and it’s fun. Also, Spheros are a combination of robotics and coding”; “It’s fun; makes coding easier to learn because it’s engaging”; “That it’s a great choice and would benefit them in the future”; “Yes, use the Spheros! They help teach coding to many and it’s very fun”.

Many robots are available for purchase today. Thinking about who will be using the robots is important--as well as what you hope to accomplish with its use--when you are deciding which robot to purchase. I love that the Sphero is accessible for a wide range of learners (ages 8+). The easy-to-use controls in the Sphero apps provide a great entry point for using a robot and allow for users to gradually explore more control with coding. Spheros are a great tool for students to see coding in action.

Teri Bauerly
STEM Educator
Spearfish Middle School
South Dakota

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