Monday, April 30, 2018

Behind the Code: Using Spheros in Middle School for Deeper Learning

We continue to look for opportunities to provide our students with experiences coding. Recently seventh grade students at both of our middle schools had the opportunity in our gifted and talented program to work with Spheros. These devices are much more than round robots that can be controlled remotely through an app. They have a number of features that really allow students to learn and practice complex coding within another separate app.

Students can begin coding with Spheros using blocks that can be dragged and connected in order to program the robot to move around with commands such as turn, move forward, etc. Within these various commands there are options for the number of degrees to turn or how far forward to roll in time or distance. In addition to this block coding, students can also directly edit and type in code as JavaScript text. Students can also switch between the two to see the code behind the blocks they have compiled. One of the teachers, Deb , at Minnetonka Middle School East, explained that this was a great differentiator for students--it allowed those who were fairly new to coding to get comfortable with it and allowed others with more experience and knowledge, as well as seeking a greater challenge, to work directly with JavaScript.

Sphero Jackson Pollack Art Activity
The teachers had the students program their Spheros to move through mazes, which proved to be more complex than students initially realized. They quickly learned they had to factor in variables like uneven floors, initial starting location and angle, and even debris on the floor that would change the Sphero’s trajectory. Students also programmed their Sphero to paint a picture (see the time lapse video above made by Andrea Hoffmann) and held Sphero Olympics with a slalom course and curling. Adding even more complexity, students learned Morse Code and programmed their Spheros to display messages through the blinking links in Morse Code, then read one another's messages. The complete outline for the nine day unit is below.

Sphero Olympic Curling
Deb explained that she found this project to be so much fun for her students that it really motivated her to do all the extra work learning about coding and Spheros herself as well as put in the additional preparation time needed for the activities. “It was one of the best things I’ve done in teaching!” she said. She came up with a number of workflow strategies which were important to ensure successful activity results. Deb plans to continue to explore new activities to include in the unit and introduce formal instruction in text coding in the future. She explained that they will need to address redundancy that may occur in regular courses as more and more middle school teachers begin using the Spheros.

“Alien Attack” Simulation:
Students used Spheros 
to deliver the anti-venom to animals
 but avoided humans as the venom was toxic to humans.
At Minnetonka Middle School West, teacher Margaret McDonald at Minnetonka Middle School West also found that her students really enjoyed the coding activities with Spheros. One of her students told me it was his favorite activity of the class this year. He liked all the hands on activities using the Spheros and seeing the actual results of the coding.

Students have further opportunities to learn coding in middle school, including using Apple’s Swift program on their iPads. Students also use LEGO’s NXT robots as well as a 3D printer (MakerBot) with Fusion 360. Elective classes in eighth grade include Advanced Robotics using EV3s and a Computer Science class in which students learn Java and HTML. These elective options continue at our high school as well.  
Day 1   Introduction – get acquainted with the SpheroParts – diagramHow it worksDownload appSet-up accountShow video diagram of insides of a Sphero          
Day 1-2        Learn basic commands of: Roll (variables – heading, duration and speed), Color, SoundMake a square  
Day 3  Maze Mayham  move through a maze 
Day 4  Secret Message Morse Code – light series of dots & dashes 
Day 5  Martian Attack – game using X/Y coordinates (code the bot to knock down pieces) 
Day 6  Sphero Olympics – Slalom Course: code the bot through gates – fastest person wins  
Day 7  Sphero Olympics – Curling: Working in teams, Code the bot to land in the circle, receive points offensive and defensive knock opponents out of circle.  
Day 8  Sphero Olympics – Hockey coding the bot to hit another object (wiffle ball) into the man-made net (shoe box)  
Day 9  Sphero Art:  Jackson Pollack and Art Activity – make a mural using paint and the Sphero with or without the nubby Sphero cover.
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