Sphero, a Bolt of Great STEAM Spirit

Bringing coding and robotics to students everywhere.

CLASS NOTES | by Mark Gura

My students call me “Professor.” I teach “Technology Integration for School Leaders,” an online graduate level course for Touro College. And once a semester, I invite into my class’ Zoom space a guest — someone with deep insight into a particular facet of Instructional Technology.

Happily last week, Michelle Acaley, Senior Director of Products and Content at Sphero, a company with a prominent track record of providing appealing student robotics materials, accepted my invitation and joined the class.

My students, by the way, are in-service teachers earning a Master’s in Instructional Technology and preparing for New York State professional teacher certification as Educational Technology Specialists. With the exception of one student, who most interestingly is a Phys-Ed Teacher who’s been enthusiastically embracing edtech as part of his professional growth efforts, most of my students, while having heard of student robotics, had only a very general idea of what it is and how it fits in with the educational experience schools offer today’s students.

It turned out that the company served as a perfect focus to flesh out this understanding. And although I’ve personally been following student robotics for years, this turned out to be an opportunity to get a clearer picture of their products and offerings and a better understanding of how robotics has deepened and broadened, enabling itself to enrich today’s learning. Our eyes were opened as we discovered a dazzling range of curricular entry points, instructional approaches, and learning opportunities established with the introduction of little robots into the classroom. 

‘Our eyes were opened as we discovered a dazzling range of curricular entry points, instructional approaches, and learning opportunities…’

What follows are some of the ‘ah-ha’ revelations that resonated strongly for me and my class of soon-to-be school technology leaders.

An Inspiring Origin Story

Their origin story is an inspiring one. As Michelle put it “Education found Sphero”, explaining that the company’s initial robot was a small, opaque white ball that could be ‘driven’ remote-control style from a smart phone. It was intended simply to be a fun device for those who enjoyed ‘nerding out’ with electronic devices and toys. However, the numbers of teachers who, after coming across Sphero, thought it would be an effective and practical way to bring robotics into their classroom grew and grew and eventually the company’s leaders realized it was destined to be a popular educational resource.

The Sphero team kept developing the little robot ball, listening to teachers’ ideas and feedback, and fleshing out its functions and capabilities to satisfy what teachers wanted in a classroom robot. Thus, the original product evolved and acquired siblings, first the Spark robot, and then the Bolt, which is now their highly functional, flagship offering. There are others, as well.

Want to hear a cool anecdote? Michelle relates that students and teachers naturally had a desire to see what was inside the original product’s opaque shell. Don’t we all remember those kids who’d take their toys apart to see how they worked and then couldn’t get them back together again? This same impulse moved their design team to make the robots see through, allowing keen young STEAM learners to see what’s inside their nimble little robot and what makes it work as they program it to do wonderful things.

A Hyper-practical Resource

One outstanding dimension of the line of robots is how practical they are for educators. Michelle pointed out that they’re fairly indestructible; falling off a classroom desk is very unlikely to damage them. They’re small, easy to program, and students can run them to demo how their programs direct the little robots’ behavior on a variety of surfaces like student desktops or classroom floors.

The Bolt Power Pack, one of Sphero’s offerings, is a class set of robots that fits in a small, valise-like case in which they can be stored and secured, charged, and carried from classroom to classroom in a way that’s easy on everyone and that let’s any classroom become a robotics learning space.

Robotics & Coding Across the Curriculum

Our conversation focused on highlights of Sphero’s very rich, instructionally oriented website that aligns strongly with my Technology Integration class’s focus. In addition to what we expected to find there in the way of robotics and coding activities, we found tabs for teachers to explore that are labeled Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art activities. All this across grade bands that run from K-2, to 0-12.

Further, Michelle explained that a year and a half ago, the company came out with a Computer Science foundation curriculum, comprised of 72 lessons that take students from “I’ve never programmed a day in my life!” all the way through JavaScript. She pointed out that not one lesson is focused solely on Computer Science, it is all cross curricular. For instance, there’s a unit on storytelling and understanding story themes and character development. One teacher did an entire robot-supported lesson on The Grapes of Wrath using Sphero and effectively highlighting the element of struggle in the story.

Impressively, the company’s site hosts a community of enthusiastic teachers who post the activities they’ve developed to do with their own classes using the robots and app. This approach to crowdsourcing curriculum lends a wonderful richness and authenticity to a growing body of learning opportunities possible through their offerings.

Whatever the curricular connection, though, the company offers a flexible variety of experience in coding  which can be done on a PC or a mobile device like a smartphone using a free, downloaded app. There are three ways to program the robots:  (1) with commands presented as easy to visualize and manipulate virtual blocks; (2) with traditional, more advanced JavaScript; and (3) by drawing a pathway directly on a tablet or other device’s grid-like interface that’s interpreted as directions to follow by the robot.

Great STEAM Spirit

An unexpectedly heartwarming serendipity to come from my class’ first, solid look at the world of Sphero is more associated with the company’s culture than with its offerings. We were very much taken with what might best be described as its great STEAM Spirit.

Michelle spoke of their “content first” approach, in which refinement and development of resources it offers educators begins with the objectives teachers we want to teach. It is after finding a focus there that their engineers and makers come in and wrap their brains around how to teach that specific thing by creating a device or program and not by first creating something and  afterwards trying to design content around it.

Peppered throughout their online universe we found bits and pieces of a very appealing, very human side of student robotics and coding. From the prominent, “DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL” notice announcing the recent blog post, “Why Failing is important in Education”, to highlighting the inspiring group of teachers designated as Sphero Heroes, educators who exemplify the spirit of creativity and curiosity in education” – and on to  a posse of cool, sincere, young hacker types who welcome you into their own Meet The Makers video saying, “Hi all you budding engineers, makers, dreamers and sphero fans, welcome to sphero headquarters in beautiful Boulder, Colorado!”

That seems to me to be a thoroughly enticing invitation into a world that just about any kid would want to learn in. In fact, you can sign me up, too! Thanks for visiting our class, Sphero.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Technology.

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