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It Draws, It Spells, It Colors, at Touch of a Tablet

Students Learn Coding by Commanding Sphero


Moving at lightning speed, second-grader Logan Shank beat his teammates Exley Roon and Emma Bowman to the Sphero, a miniature robotic orb, effectively becoming the leader of the assigned group of three. Tapping twice, Logan woke the sleeping Sphero, which dramatically snapped to life flashing strobe-like until it connected with his iPad via Bluetooth.

“Whoa! It’s going,” said Logan, taking his first step into computer coding. Logan placed the shiny see-through robotic ball on the floor and set about fiddling on the iPad. His class’ learning target was to code the Sphero — about the size of a baseball — to draw a landform.

For the multidisciplinary lesson, teacher Nathan Fischer used Spheros to explore the physical features found on Earth. In this makerspace, a high-tech room for creating and computing, Fischer is teaching his 27 students how to dream — and to think about the world in a new way.

“What’s possible?” Fischer asked. “I don’t know but they will, because I can only imagine that the kinds of careers they will encounter in 20 years will require coding skills. So I need them to understand this knowledge so they can take this on.”

Leah Smith tried her hand at driving the Sphero, a remote-controlled robotic ball, via her iPad

Let’s Play Ball

Logan’s Sphero shot out, zigzagging across the floor, blinking its lights and bumping into things as it sketched out his landform.

“I’m doing it. I’m doing it,” Logan exclaimed. “Now, you have to guess what I’m drawing,” He challenged the two girls, knowing that he had a trick up his sleeve: His landform was “plains,” which made it look like the Sphero was aimlessly rolling around.

Exley and Emma hankered to try their hands at coding, something that used to be shrouded in HTML mystery. Now it’s becoming a fundamental building block like reading, writing and arithmetic, and teachers like Fischer are integrating technology into all sorts of subjects. Last month, he created a stop-motion video to sequence the students’ still photos, giving the impression of movement.

For the generation raised with smartphones and tablets at their fingertips, coding puts the kids in the driver’s seat to manipulate technology rather than just consume it. They’re telling the computer to do a task, whether it’s writing out a spelling list, venturing into computer-aided design and 3-D printing, or reverse engineering a snowflake.

As the students and Spheros spun into action — laughing and leaping, teaming and troubleshooting — Fischer and district technology guru John Schilthroat the let kids do their thing.

“In here, we get to really do fun stuff that we don’t get to do in the classroom,” said Emma launching, her Sphero to make a mountain landform.

Taking the Sphero from her teacher Nathan Fischer, Emma Bowman looks to manipulate the robotic ball to spin across the floor

The Future of Computing

“The makerspace takes everything to the next level,” Schilthroat said, by putting science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) at the heart of the school’s computer science education.

The hands-on activities also develop teamwork, analytical thinking, inclusion and self-confidence, Fischer said.

Mirroring his tablet’s content on a large TV screen, he showed the class how to program his Sphero for a basic task.

“We’re going to code this guy to spell the word apple,” he said. “Let’s say that I want the first letter to be green, so I’m going to use the color palette to select my color, and now I’m going to write the first letter.”

Fischer colored the next letters with the same process, as the glowing remote-control ball changed colors. “Isn’t that pretty neat to watch?” Fischer said.

The students’ “oohs” and “aahs” filled the room. Eager to try it out, they started to jump up and down, eyes bright and happy.

“This is making something come to life, which is so powerful for them,” Fischer said. “They love this.”

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Sphero Edu: Beyond Code

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