May 22, 2024

Sphero, LittleBits and Other Robots Bring Technology to Life

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Sphero, LittleBits and Other Robots Bring Technology to Life
eli.zimmerman_9856
Tue, 07/02/2019 – 11:36

Josh Stumpenhorst got hooked on robotics three years ago when his son showed him the Sphero BB-8, a baseball-sized, self-propelled robot based on the Star Wars droid. Now Stumpenhorst, director of the learning commons at Lincoln Junior High in Naperville, Ill., is a certified Sphero Hero.

Sphero, a programmable robot, can be found in more than 20,000 schools around the globe, including the math and science classrooms at Stumpenhorst’s school, about an hour west of Chicago.

He bought the school’s first three or four Spheros out of his own pocket. Now the school has about 20 models, along with apps students can use on their tablets or Chromebooks to learn the basics of programming.

Sixth-graders get acquainted with the Sphero at the library during lunch or after school. By eighth grade, they’re incorporating the device into classroom science and math experiments, such as learning how to plot linear equations.

“The kids can code Sphero to move up a ramp for a certain amount of time at a certain speed,” Stumpenhorst says. “The Sphero Edu app will pump out an actual linear equation of the bot’s movements. Then we’ll challenge the kids by physically drawing a slope and have them code the robot to mimic that movement. That’s pretty difficult, but some of our honors kids are able to do it.”

The beauty of Sphero is its simplicity, he says.

“Literally, all you need is a tablet or Chromebook, then just plug it in and charge it,” he says. “There’s nothing that our IT department had to do. You don’t need to buy or build anything. It comes out of the box, you turn on the app, and you’re ready to code. And the app has so many tutorials and instruction pieces that even if I knew nothing about it, I could give it to kids and they’d be running with it in no time.” 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how tinker–fests and hackathons can rev up STEM interest in K–12 students.

Hands-On Work with Robots Teaches Progressive Coding Skill

Though robotics is massively popular as an after-school program, it’s only now starting to be integrated into regular classroom curricula, says Mark Gura, former director of the Office of Instructional Technology for the New York City Board of Education and author of Getting Started with LEGO Robotics: A Guide for K–12 Educators.

That’s a good thing, because robotics instruction can fill a gap many schools have in their STEM and STEAM initiatives, he adds.

“When I speak to principals, I sometimes get the impression that they think if they have science, technology, art and math classes, they have a STEAM program,” says Gura. “The idea is to integrate these subjects, which happens through engineering. But engineering’s been given short shrift because it’s difficult to teach. Student robotics is the perfect instructional approach to get at the engineering part.” These efforts can’t start too early. 

At Nathaniel Morton Elementary in Plymouth, Mass., for example, robotics education begins when kids start their schooling, says Technology Integration Specialist Carmella Hughes.

Dan Tynan is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He has won numerous journalism awards and his work has appeared in more than 70 publications, several of them not yet dead.