CUE sent my classroom five Spheros through the CUE STEAMpunk program. I had almost no experience with Spheros. I had only started teaching coding as a regular part of my curriculum a month and a half ago. I was learning alongside the kids.
What the heck am I going to to with five Spheros?
I’m going to do what I always do– do a little digging, then dive in.
I got to school early the day they arrived, and began the charging process. Three hours later my students were at recess, curious about the little white balls blinking around the classroom but accepting my answer of, “You’ll see soon.” This was half baiting the hook with mystery and half, “I’m not really sure what we’re going to do so I don’t have a great answer.” Once the kids went to recess I got down on the floor and tried to play. App downloaded*, connecting the devices was surprisingly easy and within minutes I was rolling along the halls, giggling and showing off my new toys to the other teachers.
I still didn’t have a solid plan. But one was forming.
When the kids came back I introduced them to Sphero. Lucky for me I’d instituted a BYOD policy in my class so kids were ready to get to work. If I hadn’t there’d have been no way to pilot the little bots. Keep that in mind if you’re getting the kit. Being BYOD or having a temporary “It’s ok to get out your phone” truce is a must. I wrote down the list of apps I wanted those with devices to download (Sphero, Draw n Drive, SPRK), broke them into five groups, and said, “Play. And share.”
Then I started troubleshooting. “Mr Robertson, I can’t download apps, I need my Dad’s password.” “Mr Robertson, my tablet doesn’t have enough memory.” “Mr Robertson, how come it says this app won’t run on this device?” “Mr Robertson, it’s not seeing the Sphero in front of me, what do I do?” One by one, slowly and surely I put out fires and helped solve problems. I guided some to the answers I knew they could find and hand-held others with bigger tech issues. Digital natives, huh?
I wasn’t too worried about any of this though, because I knew I had two weeks, and issues like this were bound to come up early in the process. This is the learning curve. The kids needed to have these problems on Day One so that on Day Five they would know how to get straight to work and bounce back when a simple tech issue sprang up. That level of acceptance of failure will need to be a part of the mindset when you get a CUE STEAMpunk kit. Or do anything exciting in a classroom. Ever.
We spent that first day just driving robots around the classroom. Not coding, not doing anything complicated, just driving. Getting the feel. And I let my plan form and grow.
On Day Two I introduced our two week Sphero project, yclept The Maze Roller. It was simple- Students would build mazes from cardboard. Then they would program the bots to roll through the mazes. Once the code was written in the SPRK app all the kids would be allowed to do is hit Run.
We talked essential questions and they wrote what they thought they needed to know. Great, interesting, insightful questions about measurement and velocity and circumference and angles and other things I hadn’t formally taught yet. I talked about how I wanted the school to buy us some of these when our two weeks was up, but in order to do that they needed to convince the principal, the board, and the faculty that Spheros aren’t toys, they are educational tools. “You must be able to have an academic conversation about what you’re doing,” I preached. “Think about the problems you run into and talk them out with math and critical thinking. Remember what you do and why.”
The next few days were a whirl of activity. Every free minute was dedicated to The Maze Roller project. Math became Maze Roller territory. I’d walk around asking very specific questions about what they were doing, making the students explain their thinking. Mazes took a little longer to build than I would have liked and doing it again I think I might have planned that part differently, but they sure do look nice on the final video and I think having the walls helped the students both with the coding and the buy-in, so it was probably a good choice. Everyone finished, albeit with little time to spare.
Most impressive was watching the problem solving take place organically. I warned the groups not to make their mazes too difficult. A few listened. A few not so much. Not so much meant trickier code. Short distances, tight turns, easy mistakes. “Mr Robertson, we need help.” I’d walk over and maybe give a piece of advice, a reminder about what Heading meant in the SPRK program. But not much. I did very little Teaching in the two weeks we had our CUE STEAMpunk kit. I did some guiding. I did some encouraging. I did some refereeing when the students who aren’t as good at teamwork hit their cooperation edges. Students worked through every problem, talking things out, being a team, showing their learning in ways they didn’t even realize.
Our final day with the Spheros was Friday, October 30th. Normally an exhausting day for a teacher because it’s the day we do Halloween. It’s the day the kids are keyed up and itching to get out of Dodge. Candy and parties and dress-up, oh my.
My kids were on point and focused. Two groups coded desperately, a few steps away from the clearing their mazes. The other three recorded How We Did It videos and celebrated by making their coded runs cleaner, faster, and more efficient. In the end everyone made it, some with Spheros blinking red, signalling the nearing of battery death with no time to recharge and try again.
All I did was give them an end goal- Build a maze. Program your way through the maze. Be able to discuss your thinking and problems. Ready…Go! They were engaged, excited, and utterly bought in for two solid weeks. They learned and liked it.
This project is going to help a fellow teacher and I build a MakerSpace at my school. It’s going to help us get the PTO to buy us Spheros and drones and other codable technologies. Which means it’s going to help my entire school get more excited about learning.
What a gift.
Here is the beginning-to-end video I made of our The Maze Roller process.
*make sure to have the Sphero, SPRK, and Macrolab apps downloaded to your device as soon as you know you’re getting a kit to save time
Doug Robertson is the CUE blog editor, Slytherin faculty representative, and a tenth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education,He’s the Weird Teacher andTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome) and an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words). Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST