Jul 02 2019

Sphero, LittleBits and Other Robots Bring Technology to Life

Hands-on activities teach coding, engineering and other STEM essentials at classrooms throughout the country.

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.


The number of students who compete annually in FIRST competitions

Source: FIRST, “How Robotics Competitions Close the STEM Skills Gap and Build a Diverse Workforce,” July 2018

For her kindergarten students, there’s Bee-Bot, a bee-shaped toy with directional arrows that kids use to control its motion. First graders get to explore the KinderLab Robotics KIBO robot kit, second graders use LEGO WeDo construction sets, and in third grade, students learn Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot

For grades four and five, it’s littleBits, a kit with modular electronics pieces that snap together to form different machines, which can be programmed to follow instructions.

“By the time they reach fifth grade, they should be ready to start experimenting with more sophisticated programming languages,” says Hughes. “The goal is to get them to understand how the technology can solve real-world problems.”

Hughes, who initially funded the program with a grant from Massachusetts Computer Using Educators (MassCUE) in 2016, has gradually added enough devices so that no more than three kids have to share one at any time.

“Hands-on experience is very important,” she says. “Everyone needs to be heard and to participate. And having students work in groups of two or three encourages collaboration, a critical skill in preparing for today’s workforce.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how K–12 schools are incorporating computer science into different curriculums.

Robots Give New Ways to Teach Persistence, Problem-Solving

At Hoboken Charter School, a K–12 program in northern New Jersey, students can choose from a range of educational robotic kits, including Dash and Dot, LEGO Mindstorms and littleBits.

“In middle school, we primarily use littleBits to teach engineering,” says Chris Kunkel, a math teacher and STEM coordinator. “They’re great for prototyping. We give the kids design challenges they have to complete using littleBits and other materials. We also use littleBits Code Kit, which is like a programmable mini microcomputer.”

Kunkel also coaches the school’s robotics team, Roboken, which was recently a division finalist at a state robotics contest. 

The school participates in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge, a global competition for which middle and high school students build robots and program them to compete head to head. (Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas all recognize robotics as an official extracurricular high school sport, according to FIRST.)

As with many schools, the biggest challenge at Hoboken Charter School is getting enough robots for all the students who want one.

“We don’t have an infinite number of robot kits,” says Kunkel. “Figuring out ways that every kid can be hands-on touching a robot is hard when you have five or six robots and 20-something kids in the class. You want to make sure every kid is getting a quality experience while reaching as many of them as possible.”

That investment can pay huge dividends. Aside from being an exciting introduction to science and technology, working with robots can reach students who might otherwise struggle in traditional classroom settings, says Kunkel.

“As a math teacher, I often see students who have a bit of a closed mindset,” he says. “If they don’t immediately get a problem, they throw up their hands and say, ‘This is too hard for me.’ But when they’re doing the engineering stuff, you almost never see that. They try, and try again, and try a third time until they get the robot to do whatever it is they want it to do.”

Kerkez/Getty Images

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