Oct 19 2015

Robots That Teach: Using Sphero in Class

The company that inspired Star Wars' BB-8 droid has already won the hearts and minds of K–12 students with a similar ball-shaped robot named Sphero.

Robots are rolling out of toy stores and into classrooms at a surprising rate. The good news is that these smart toys are definitely smart enough for school: All it takes is the right lesson plan.

Instead of diving into everyone's favorite questions about robots — How do you plan for learning with a robot? What does a robot-enhanced lesson look like? How many robots do you need? What will all of this cost? — let's begin with three ideas for learning with one robot. Each of these ideas works great with a Sphero robot, which retails for $120.

The following lessons were written using Tickle, one of several powerful programming apps for Sphero. Tickle uses block-based programming that many students may be familiar with because they’ve interacted with similar apps.

Dance with Me

Students program Sphero to be their dance partner. I have done this in a few contexts, but the best was as part of a physical education unit on dance. It is easy to program a robot to dance; for example, here is a Tickle program I wrote to make Sphero do the cupid shuffle. The real challenge was dancing with the robot. Students quickly realized they had to be as precise as the robot.

Check out this video from Sphero that highlights the robot’s fancy dance moves:

Programing a Hot Potato

This is a fun game in which one student programs the Sphero to change colors, based on time passing or the robot tilting. When the color changes, the person holding the robot is out or has to correctly answer a question. The robot can detect degrees of rotation, so it could be set to turn red if rotated 30 degrees. There are many other triggers that could also be used to change the robot’s color. This is a simple starter program.

Solving the Maze

For this lesson, imagine the Sphero is a ball-shaped protractor. Create a course on the floor with tape. It does not have to be complex. Give small teams of two or three students a chance to program the robot to navigate the course. Team members will need to measure angles and distances and adjust the team’s program through trial and error. Even on a simple course, this lesson can be a perseverance trainer.

There are hundreds of other great ways to use these robots to support student learning. My advice is get one and put it into the hands of students — see what they can do. Build challenges and celebrate failure. Learning can be hard but fun, and these robots make integration easy.


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