Top Tips for Teaching with Robots (using Sphero)

Robots are everywhere, they open our garage doors, vacuum our floors and if you are lucky they even park your car.  Until recently there weren’t many robots in the classroom and now I couldn’t imagine approaching STEM without them.  Using the Sphero robots in my after school programming club has opened my eyes to both what can be taught using simple robots and how to do it.  I want to share with you some tools and tips for teaching with robots.
This post is authored by guest blogger, Sam Patterson. In addition to being a fun, create guy — Sam is a K-5 Technology Teacher who blogs at www.mypaperlessclassroom.com and shares puppet videos at www.edupuppets.com. You can find him on Twitter at @SamPatue. I love the Sphero and have one in my classroom. We’ll be giving away one of them in the comments on this post. Just reply how you’re teaching computer science or STEM and how you’d use a sphero and Sam and I will pick one of you!
Sphero did not sponsor this post. They did, however, give me one last year and I fell in love with it. They gave me one to give away to a lucky reader (see below.) Happy Hour of Code week!

Sphero pic

4 Tips to Start Teaching with Sphero Robots


1. Start simple.

While I have a class set of Lego NXT robots, it is challenging to put together a good lesson I can do with several classes with these robots due to their complexity.  Both Sphero Robots and Bee Bots are very simple robots and make content integration accessible to all teachers. As a tech integration specialist for grade K-5 I want a robot that a math teacher is comfortable using.  Sphero has several programming interfaces that make meaningful content area application easy without a steep learning curve.

2. Follow a guide.

While Sphero is a connected toy, the Orbotix company has free curriculum that models meaningful content use.  The lesson published as part of their SPRK education program are excellent models for meaningful in class use.  My favorite lesson is the Rate Time and Distance lesson.
Instead of learning a formula and plugging in values from a series of word problems about Dr. Patterson on his bicycle, now my students program a robot, observe the results, change the program, and observe the changes.  The math activity runs much more like a science experiment.  The students are guided in a process of discovery about the relationship between rate time and distance.

Question: Win your own sphero by commenting on this post about how you’re teaching Computer Science or STEM now and how you’d use a Sphero with your students. In case of a tie, we’ll pick the one who responded first. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

3. Support play.

When my students begin using Sphero, I give them time to explore what the robot can do, and they have fun.  I don’t have them begin by all doing the same thing.  I show them about one-third of the controls and then I give them some challenges.  Discovery is an important part of learning, and if I didn’t give them the time to explore they would be playing while I wanted them to explore rate time and distance.

4. Invent your own lesson.

I appreciate the lessons Orbotix has written because they clearly illustrate how these robots can be used in lessons that support common core standards in math and science.  These lessons can provide any teacher with a great starting point for designing their own robot augmented lessons.
Sphero is one way to do hour of code. This school ordered Tshirts. Remember that while the "official" hour of code is in December, you can do Hour of Code any time you want. You can have an hour of code once a month or a week. You decide. Great program and lots of resources!

Sphero is one way to do hour of code. This school ordered Tshirts. Remember that while the “official” hour of code is in December, you can do Hour of Code any time you want. You can have an hour of code once a month or a week. You decide. Great program and lots of resources!

4 Top Tools for Robot Augmented Instruction


1. Tape.

Masking tape or blue tape can be really helpful to organize a small herd of robots in a class.  I use tape to mark the start and finish lines for robot races, and to designate the goal for a game of robot boccie ball.  Tape goers down quick and comes up easily (as long as you don’t leave it there too long.)

2. YouTube.

There are so many great ideas about how to use a Sphero robot on Youtube.  This video inspired me to give my students a design challenge to build and race Sphero chariots.

3. A label maker.

Once I had 12 Spheros for my classes, I labeled each one with a number and then I associated each Sphero with only one iPad.  This made it easy to start class, I activated Bluetooth on iPads 1-12 and woke up the robots, within a minute they were all associated and ready to roll.

Pedagogy Pro Tip

The Sphero programming interface MacroLab enables a teacher to email a program to a student.  this means as I assemble my lesson I can create scaffolding for my diverse learners by writing starter programs for my students.
This makes the lesson accessible to all the kids in my class and allows me to deliver extra support discretely, keeping those students involved in the learning without asking them to single themselves out for more help.
As you explore how robots can ad to the learning experiences in your classroom, I hope you share your journey with us here.  Everytime I show teachers what I am doing with these simple robots they give me more amazing ideas about how Sphero can support lessons in geometry, math and even color theory.
Want to win your own sphero? Just share with us in the comments what you’re doing now and what you want to do with sphero. Sam and I will pick one of you to win your own sphero for your classroom or club. Good luck! (We’ll pick the winner around December 15. In case of a tie, we’ll pick the person who responded first.)

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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73 thoughts on “Top Tips for Teaching with Robots (using Sphero)

  1. Hi Sam and Vicki! I am the advisor for our high school’s Geek Squad, which we started this year. We have kids exploring programming and game design, as well as helping with tech support needs around the school. For instance, if a teacher is having a tech issue and the SST is not available they can call me and I send one of our squad to check it out. Most of the time they are able to help! So, I would love to use this with this after school group. I think they would benefit by moving from programming sprites on their screen to being able to control a physical object. It would be a really cool experience! Thanks!

    • Wow Mike – I love what you’re doing. I’d love to know more about the “Geek Squad”. Sounds like an incredible program and yes, I think they’d love the sphero. After reviewing all of the comments so far, we’re going to have some serious work to do! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Vicki I have a similar after school club for grades 3-5. My Geek squad got their first Sphero last year and it was love at first sight. We now have 3 and are waiting on our Ollie to arrive. We have made obstacle courses and then tried to drive our Sphero (his name is George) around the course. In January another group starts up and I am interested in looking into lessons like your math one for them. Also I am starting a Coding club and recently discovered that you can hack Sphero through bluetooth, so we will see how far we get with that. I regularly have geeks in the morning in my room before school starts but usually not enough Spheros!

    • Oh you are going to get an Ollie!!! Wow, Cary. I’m so jealous! Those look amazing. Awesome. Thanks for sharing what you’re doing. This sounds incredible and I could learn so much from you!

  3. Hi Sam and Vicki, to be honest with you, I have no clue as of now what I can do with a Sphero. This is my first time seeing a Sphero. I am a 8th Grade Math Teacher who is teaching a STEM class as an elective. Currently, we are making vibro-bots that would color a paper in a unique pattern and 3 different colors. Additionally, I am looking into coding, legos robotics and frankly just any ideas that allow students to think on their feet and explore. If I were to get a Sphero, I would learn and explore so much from my students and keep on developing on STEM class. Thank you for sharing this blog as well as the opportunity of winning a Sphero!

    • Oh Shelly, Spheros are so cool! There are so many things you can do with them. They are easy to program and so much fun. Look up sphero obstacle course and see what you can do! AWesome. Thanks for entering and sharing what you’re doing!

  4. I’d use this to simultaneously learn programming and study the physics of motion with my high school physics students!

  5. Hi Sam (and Vicki), I am planning to teach my students to code on graphing calculators on Thursday of this week. Like other mobile devices, they carry the calculators around, but most students have no idea that they can use them in a powerful way and that calculator programs are pretty easy to write. Everyone who writes a calculator program that they can use for something in chemistry will get a little extra credit this week. If I had a Sphero for my classroom, I would use it to show the motion of molecules. Or, make that a molecule. It would be great to show kids relationships that we describe rather than animate. But if I had two, I would be able to show all sorts of things in the study of gas laws and kinetics too.

  6. Hey, Sam and Vicki, great info. Here in Seguin, we are just starting our experience with robotics this year, and we hold free summer camps and have a club at each campus for our 4th through 8th grades. We have a very low socio-economic population here, and the response has been extremely positive. Many of our parents have expressed to me their gratitude, telling me things like, “I always wanted my kids to have this kind of experience, but I had no idea how to make it happen.” What I want more than anything here is for Seguin, Texas, students to have aspirations that aren’t limited by their life experiences, and giving them these types of opportunities early is critical to expanding the possibilities they envision. Our need now is to grab their attention even earlier, as so many of our interestests, tendencies, etc. are set before we hit the 4th grade. We have looked at several possibilities, including Bee Bots and MakeDo, which is being given a trial run at one elementary, courtesy of a grant received. I am interested in the use of the Sphero as a means of getting our younger students hooked. The coding seems appropriate for young students, the device itself is fun and exciting (and free of parts that break off/get lost!), and it looks like a potentially great tool for engaging our students in STEM. I am interested in the outcomes of taking a hands-off approach, beyond the basic introduction/activities. I envision students having brainstorming times where they plot, sketch, and plan things that such a robot could do, problems it could solve. As with our Lego sets, the kids tend to imagine much greater possibilities when unfettered by our expectations, and engagement levels are never better.

    • Wow Randy – I really think you’d love Sphero. It would be a great fit for you as well. I’m so impressed with what you’re doing. I love your heart that fights for your kids. I totally see that in you. Totally impressed. Not sure how we’re going to decide here.

  7. Thanks so much for the tips on using Sphero in the classroom. I am a first year computer lab teacher. I recently spent a week long project with my 4th graders learning about programming, something I hadn’t done personally since I was their age (25 years earlier). I got so hooked that I found Sphero in a search and bought my own to share with the students. I immediately saw the value of having the students get the instant feedback from a physical object they programmed, but also the limitations of only having one. My ultimate goal is to have a class set, but with limited funds, I will need to take it one at a time.

    This week all 540 of my K-6 students are participating in our first Hour of Code, and Sphero has become the official mascot. Every student will have a chance to use Sphero, which is the coolest thing to see. I also started “Club Code” where my 4th graders voluntarily give up their recess to program, and again Sphero is the star. This amazing tool has transformed the way my students look at programming, and has quickly become the #1 item on all their Christmas lists! Thanks again!

      • Thanks for the reply, Vicki! Club Code was the result of a week of programming in the lab with my 4th graders which simply wasn’t enough for them or me! They love to play with Scratch, Logo, and JavaScript, but the star of the show has been Sphero. I love to see what new ways they can come up with learn through “play”. Every day is a new adventure, I love my job!

  8. In my small town Kansas school, Sphero is the tops! Every time I leave them out charging, every class asks, “do we get to play, er, program, the Spheros today?” I spend about one class period a week with programming specific lessons, and those little robots are the best tool I’ve found so far. Better than coding websites because my students must collaborate and compete in real space.
    My goal is to get most of my students proficient using Orb Basic. Then, let them loose and see what they are able to create with these amazing robots!

    • That is awesome, Christopher. Im curious which app is your favorite for this? But yes,I totally agree – the spatial movement (and durability) makes them perfect for teaching programming.

  9. I am a full time math and science teacher at the middle school and a volunteer robotics coach for both FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Challenge. I coach seven FTC teams at the middle level and one FRC team at the high school level. I also use Treehouse with my students to help them learn to code and try to bring technology into our everyday learning to help engage students and bring content alive. I have been so impressed by what kids can do with just a bit of guidance. They code, they build, they compete and they really feel a true connection to the work and their learning. Coding and technology integration has allowed my students to rethink learning. I would appreciate the chance to add a Sphero to my classroom. I can already imagine the fun they’ll have with it!

    • Awesome Kyle. Sounds like you’re so experienced already with this! I need to look at Treehouse and see what it is! I can tell Sam and I are going to have a hard time with picking this one!

  10. Thank you Sam and Vicki for sharing how you have used this neat toy to introduce programming in your classroom. I would love to try some of your ideas with my middle school students. I believe it would be very engaging. I am looking for a way to implement coding, but I only have them for six weeks. This looks very doable!

    • It would be a great choice for you! The struggle is that it is so great to have two so you can have competitions and take everything to another level. Very cool tool! Thanks for entering the contest, Debbie.

  11. Hi, Sam and Vicki,

    I had volunteered to do a Robotics Club for my PTO beginning in January, and need to learn how to do it… sounds like Sphero, from what I’ve read beyond this post, is a good beginning. The lab app sounds really useful for programming one’s own tricks and actions. The tips you give here are great…and I can think of so many ways to use the Sphero! I would love to get some tactile material–sand or something and have little kids draw something (using the drive and draw app) and see it replicated by Sphero! Could even be used by them to practice shapes, letters, etc.–and have the other kids “read” it as Sphero rolls it. I think older kids who have a ball programming it to do tricks–and I’d love to see the thing roll around our school with a hat over it or something, so kids could guess what it is. What a cool way to introduce it to the school. Thanks for sharing, always!

    • These are great ideas, Paula! I love all the different apps that come with Sphero because you can use them in so many ways! Great ideas! Hope you’re well this holiday season, Paula!!

  12. At my school we are in our second year of going through the Hour of Code lessons. We went from just participating one week to a full three weeks in December dedicated to HOC.
    We would use the Sphero Robot to help take the HOC further in our computer science learning.
    Thank you!

    • Wow, Jody! I love the 3 weeks dedicated to Hour of Code. That would be easy to do with all of the great lessons that have. And yes, Sphero is a great real world tool to use to program. Great thoughts and congratulations on expanding your Hour of Code. What a great idea! Why does it have to be just one hour? We can do more!

  13. Thanks for this post! So many people are looking for the next step after the Hour of Code, and the Sphero looks like an excellent tool. There are resources for the Sphero at http://snap.berkeley.edu/ that allow students to use block coding to control the Sphero. I am hoping to add a Sphero to my Gr. 3/4 class to allow students to see a physical application of their coding.

    • Thanks for the link, Scott, to the Berkley resources. Block coding is awesome and everyone who has one will love this resource. Thank you! It is a great resource for all ages. I have a Sphero and am going to look at the block coding as well. Great!

  14. Hi! I am a computer lab teacher at a K-5 public school. I was introduced to a sphero for the first time last week during Hour of Code week! A parent brought it in and I immediately began to think of all the math, science, and programming aspects that I can teach our K-5 students. My students were very engaged during Hour of Code week and I hope to inspire them to keep programming! I would first like to use the sphero to further learning about fractions with the sphero colors. I am without computers some due to testing requirements – which makes the sphero an ideal learning tool when I am mobile!

    • Wow, so many things you can do, DEnise. I have to comment on the being without computers due to testing requirements. This is a heartbreaking trend around the company — schools just using computers to test. It is so sad that it has come to that point. You would be a great fit for sphero.

      • I agree – it is disheartening — hoping that it won’t be that way in the future — our school is doing a big project based learning initiative that I am excited about … of course, everything we do in computer lab is project based learning — but excited to do more. I am doing more “hour of code” with my students this week — I cannot get over how much they love it and how good they are doing with it! I cannot wait to try out a sphero with them… I just wish I could have the kids longer than I do because I want to do some many projects with them!! haha!

        • LOL Denise! I totally get you. After I have my students 2 1/2 years, I still want them more because I always have more to teach. It is never enough!! I totally get that — it means you have the heart of a teacher. It is a DNA thing in some ways — we just want to spark excitement and take them further. IT is what we do.

    • Hi Paula. Sam and I have talked and I’m in the process of contacting the person now. In the case of a tie, we go with the one who posted first. I need to vet the person though so it may take a tiny bit and if it doesn’t work out we may have to go with the second choice. It is really really hard and I wish I had enough to give everyone one!!

      • Paula — Sam and I chatted and we picked Randy Rogers for this one. I want to see what I can do to find you one too just because I love you so much. I’m out of pocket for a while but ping me in the new year and let’s figure something out.

  15. We just got two Spheros for our 4th graders and they are loving it. So far we have just had the kids learn how to drive them around the room, but to get our principal on board, we had some small groups learn how to calculate and program Sphero to travel in a square meeting a certain area and perimeter. The kids loved it and so did our Principal. We had borrowed a Sphero from our county ISD and now have purchased two of our own. We are waiting to hear from a local bank on a grant to purchase two sets of 12 to share with our two classes! Love Sphero so far!

  16. Hi Vicki,

    Thanks for an inspiring website! The links and videos are great resources. One small criticism of your video though… I don’t think sphero needs to compete in a way that downplays the importance of computer and line coding, and certainly not in a way that downplays other aspects of education. Can’t it just be educational and fun in its own right? It’s a great product with a seemingly endless scope for creativity and application. I would much rather see that aspect highlighted and enhanced without stomping on other valid and significant areas of schooling.
    I hope to implement a similar program into my school and I look forward to using your great ideas. Thanks and keep up the good work!

    • That was a guest post. I’m not sure if the author of the post is checking the comments, you might want to tweet him, Chris. Personally, I think that there are many ways to teach coding, not just one.

  17. I worked a tech camp this summer where I had my first introduction to Spheros. We also added a 7th grade this year and next year an 8th grade class at our school. Now I am focused on adding a maker’s lab to our already standard computer lab. I am limited by both space and finances and believe adding a couple of sphero’s to start with would be very doable. I would like to set up various stations to include a couple of sewing machines, minecraft.edu, tynker or scratch, and perhaps Lego’s and or Little Bits. Little Bits is very expensive and might just remain a dream which is why Sphero’s is such an affordable option for our small school.
    Thank you for your informative post!

  18. Hello! I’m the Emerging Technologies Specialist in Lewisville ISD (Texas). I would love to share some of your lesson ideas / plans with teachers in our district.
    Would you mind sharing? We will give you full credit!

  19. We are teaching a remedial Algebra math lab for high school special education students. We would like to introduce coding as a way to make algebra interesting and create a hook to draw our students into learning. We also feel some of our special students have an affinity for programming and will find that programming sphero will help showcase their strengths and build their self confidence!

  20. Sphero would be a wonderful addition to my 7th grade science classroom. My students would be much more engaged with a robot in the class. We could conduct experiments using Sphero and help students understand reliability and validity. Robots in the classroom are not just for learning robotics…the possibilities are endless!

  21. Vicki-We are in the initial stages of implementing robots and coding to our middle school curriculum. We plan on starting with Math and then moving to other subjects. We have a Lego League and a Raspberry Pi Club that meet after school, but that is a small handful of students. I’ve been put in charge of putting things together and gathering information. I like what I have seen with the Sphero and I have ideas in my head how we could use this device. Our plan is to keep moving forward with to involve the entire school in the future.

  22. I have been looking high and low for a way to jazz up my science STEM lessons. Due to limited funding, I don’t have very many “new” resources. Many of my lessons are hands on experiments but with limited technology integration due to a lack of funding. I do have an iPad, but I wasn’t sure how to use it in science. The sphero would be perfect!

    My class recently participated in Hour of Code for the first time. The students loved it! I have 8 learning support students in my classroom, and I was so impressed with their coding skills. They really felt successful. I would like to continue that excitement and incorporate it into other subject areas.

    I think sphero will be great for students to practice problem solving, perseverance, and measurement in math/science. Application of these skills will be fun and meaningful. I think the students will have a blast creating mazes as well. I’d also love to start a coding/sphero club for extension also.

  23. After participating in the Hour of Code last year I began an after school robotics program because I realized how much my students needed to be exposed to the world of computer science. We competed in the Greater San Diego BotBall Tournament. I loved the excitement my students shared while learning about coding, programing, and building robots to accomplish a task. My next step this year was to figure out how to bring this excitement and learning to all 150 students in my 6-8 grade program. We purchased a class set of Arduinos and we are exploring electronics, coding, and programming. The next step I would like to pursue is robotics and the Sphero seems to fit that desire.

    • This is awesome! Arduinos rock and so do spheros! I think that somehow it got shared that we were giving away another sphero set but this was from last year. I’m sorry for the confusion that some may have had!

  24. Thank you for this inspiring blog! I work with two homeschool networks and discovered the Sphero while Christmas Shopping in December. I have been emailing with Sphero to see if I can get an educational discount and incorporate the Sphero into my classes. As a previous IT Coordinator and math teacher, I am very excited about the endless possibilities the Sphero offers to engaging students. As someone who teaches in a mixed aged and mixed ability classroom, the Sphero will be a great way to introduce something new to all students. I look forward to learning more about how your teachers are using the Sphero and sharing my experiences as they evolve. Happy holidays!

  25. Hi Vicki I just have a question about your Rate Time and Distance lesson, I would love to try this, would the lesson work similarly with the SPRK robot or Ollie?
    I will have access to those with my class soon, thanks, Fio

  26. Next year I will be team teaching PBL with 5th Graders. My collegue and I are working over the summer to create a makerspace in one of our rooms. From the beginning planning stages this year we have remained adament about including coding in our lesson plans. In our search for ideas, projects, supplies, ect we ran across Sphero. We both feel this us a must have! It looks amazing! What a fun, engaging way for the students to learn coding, applied math, real workd problems solving, and science. I can even envision extending Sphero to include writing across genres! Directions, fantasy story, graphic novel starring Sphero the Super Hero, persuasive (why our school should buy more)…possibilities are endless! Can’t wait to get my hands on one!!

    • Good luck and enjoy! Also take a look at what Kevin Jarrett is doing – I’ve interviewed him on the show but he also has some great pieces on edutopia that you should read as you plan! Awesome!

  27. I would really like to tryout the Sphero with my year 9 computing class. They are doing robotics as a topic at the moment and I was wanting to give them as much access to different types of robots that are available at the moment. They would hopefully learn to program these robots to perform some task, even if it just following a track or performing a sequence of actions.

      • Dear Vicki,

        I know others have explained already the great free curriculum Sphero has available. I too, have appreciated this curriculum very much.

        I have sphero as well as other opportunities in my Maker’s Lab. You mentioned having other robotics as well and I wanted to say that my biggest challenge was not being able to be in all places at the same time.

        I have required my students to fill out this simple form each time they are here:

        Name:______________________________________
        Date: _______________________________________
        Today I worked on: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
        Results: (What I learned, what failed, what succeeded, what I would do differently, I liked it or didn’t like it, what I hope to achieve in the future)
        _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

        This teaches them the importance of documentation and also prevents them from saying ” they didnt do a thing all year, just goofed off!”

        I tell them the difference between goofing off and science is documentation!

        Enjoy your Sphero classes!