Programming

In my new role here at Prospect North I have to provide some non-contact lessons for the classes here but the good thing is that it can be delivered flexibly and all teachers want it to be of a STEM or Digital Technologies flavour. This is good because it is an area I am pretty comfortable in and quite frankly, an expected part of my role. The school is still building up its STEM resources (another reason my role exists) and is a focus school in a partnership with Social Ventures Australia.

So, I have spent today planning for the upper primary classes as I will deliver 4 x 90 minute sessions spread over the next six weeks and I thought I would start with using Sphero as an introduction to coding. I have used Spheros quite a bit over the past two years and so thought I was working in familiar territory. The school had bought 24 new Sphero SPRK+ robots prior to my arrival and so on Friday I thought I had better charge them up ready for the coming week and check the iPads in the area to ensure that the apps I wanted to use were all there.

Looking at the new SPRK+ my initial thought was that they were very attractive with the clear exterior of the standard SPRK model with a blue equatorial stripe. They also appeared to be the same size as the standard white Sphero as the SPRK models I had bought at WGS were slightly smaller, meaning that covers were a little loose and it spun inside the plastic chariots without moving. I hooked everything up and left them all to charge in the library for a few hours.

After lunch, I checked by with my iPad to start the labelling process that I had established before and picked up the first fully charged robot I could see and went tap tap on the bench to wake it up. But ..... nothing happened. I tapped a bit harder but still no response. I assumed that maybe it hadn't charged properly so I dropped it back on the charger and tried the next one. Same result even when I dropped it directly onto the carpet. I thought that maybe the Spheros were in deep sleep mode and went through the process I thought would bring them out of that mode. No deal and nothing was being detected when I looked at Bluetooth on my iPad - something was not right here so I headed for the internet.

On the Sphero FAQ page I found the following:

Does SPRK+ work with other Sphero apps?

Modified on: Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 3:12 PM


Currently, SPRK+ is only compatible with SPRK Lightning Lab application which you can download at https://sprk.sphero.com/d, and the main Sphero app.

I could feel my plans and accumulated knowledge of relevant apps crumbling into dust in my mind. I couldn't use Drive, or Draw'n'Drive, or even Tickle if I was to believe this post. I quickly rushed over to see the school technician before he wasted his time trying to find the now-outdated apps for the iPads!

So I went over to my previously ignored Lightning Lab app to see how it would all work. Straight away I could see a new feature for connection that was a big improvement from the past. Simply you open up Lightning Lab and choose SPRK+ from the Tap a Robot to connect menu and I was away. No more opening up Bluetooth and looking for the three letter colour code to connect. No more accidentally bumping a Sphero and waking it up in transit and wasting valuable battery. Even better, there is now a battery life indicator on the main page.

Through this app, the user can progress through a Learning to Code series of mini-lessons and activities although you need an account to access this feature. This worked fine at home but there were some issues on Friday on the school network. A workaround might be to get the kids to sign up on their own laptops and follow the lessons in a self paced self managed style that would suit quite a number of learners, as long as the website isn't filtered on there as well. Something to negotiate with the IT department but unlikely to be resolved in the short amount of time before I want to use these with my first class.

Within Lightning Lab you can use joystick style controls which essentially makes the old Drive app redundant. That was good and even better was the option to code by Draw which meant I still have access to the same capability that the Draw'n'Drive app provided. I then went onto the Tickle app site and found out that they do support the SPRK+ on the latest version which sent me hurrying back to our IT support to change my order to include that as a required update. Finally to make my day, two staff members came through the library where I was starting to pack up the charged Spheros and asked if they could borrow one for the weekend. They downloaded Lightning Lab on their phones and were already buzzing with the possibilities as they had to give the Spheros a run around before heading off for the weekend.

So, this is a greatly improved Sphero. After getting over the fact that its improvements had made some familiar apps and processes irrelevant, I can see that this is a more focussed_on_learning_that_is_fun product with less connection to pure entertainment which can cloud the learning potential for some students. I am looking forward to see how the students engage with these robots and perhaps show me some new possibilities with their learning.

I described my Digital Leadership initiative in my last post and how students have signed on to participate. I managed to secure some time in our Resource Centre to supplement the lunchtime sessions so that students could work towards their badges. We have started with the twin options of MinecraftEDU and Sphero Robotics, but potentially down the track, the program could expand to Digital Leadership in iPads, BeeBots or other technology connected possibilities. We've had a Minecraft server for a few years now and I've blogged about some of the ways it has been used at our school after the research our school has done in the past.

But the Spheros are brand new to me and the students. So in the last three weeks since I took delivery of the 15 little robotic balls, I have held two afternoons and four lunchtime sessions with the sole intent of letting the Leaders loose to work things out for themselves. It has been fascinating to watch. We have a few accessories to use with the Spheros - rubberised covers, small plastic chariots that have a Lego like connection section and Terrain packs with ramps, poles and connectors to create a stunt park or obstacle course. I nabbed a building's travel case of ten iPads and downloaded eight of the most useful Sphero apps, and supplemented them with my own staff iPad and a couple of spare Nexus 7 tablets not currently being used for anything else.

The first challenge was getting the Spheros to connect and communicate with a device. The connection is made via Bluetooth and every Sphero flashes its own tri-colour sequence when woken. My eBay special at home here has a sequence of Green, Blue, Red so it appears in the BlueTooth settings as Sphero-GBR. But you can imagine the mayhem when a whole bunch of stuents double tap their Spheros to wake them, forget to see what sequence is flashing and are confronted by a list of four to seven visible devices that are offering connection!greensphero bluesphero

We started to see that often the Sphero the Leader wanted to use would not respond, or would suddenly start showing its blue aiming light but be under the control of someone else in the room who did not really know what their app was doing but they could tell they were connected to something! Once the connection issues were sorted, students had no problems getting the Spheros moving around the area using the Drive app - a simple set of controls allowing direction and speed as well as the ability to change LED colours and a limited number of "tricks" (zigzag, figure 8, square, circle, lightning). They tried out the nubby covers, zoomed around in the chariots, even allowing me to insert my iPhone into one of them and filming a Sphero Chariot POV of the Resource Centre surrounds.

Eventually, a couple of the students asked to use the Terrain Pack gear and starting setting up jumps and obstacle challenges to drive the Spheros over and through. One of the badges I had designated was a Rally Driver's badge and we had some discussion about what this would entail. I talked about being able to successfully negotiate a prescribed route but that they could set up their own challenge. A number decided that getting over the long ramp as pictured left would be testament to their skill but it turned out not to be as easy as they first imagined! The Sphero's smooth surface spun and skidded on the way up so some Leaders switched to a cover to get some much needed traction. Eventually there was a lot of excitement as Spheros veered off track at the last second, as successful attempts went unwitnessed and unverified. A lot of play and a lot of learning was going on in all sessions, and the cooperative learning I envisaged was starting to unfold.

A couple of more adventurous students decided to try out some of the other apps. One leader tried out the Sphero app which turns the use of the ball into a gaming experience with levels, points and rewards. This is quite a good way to get students thinking creatively about the Sphero and not just see it as a toy to drive around. The tricks that can be unlocked in the Core Exchange show that colour and movement sequences can be humorous and artistic, and can lead to the use of the MacroLab app where the programming aspect of Spheros can be utilised. Only a a small number of students have felt confident enough to have a go in this app but the pride in creating and programming a simple Macro could be clearly seen in the face of the two Leaders who just had to show me what they had coded.

These leaders clearly need more time to grow their expertise and I am learning a lot just simply through observation and trying to solve their problems as they arise. Some students are even keen to help me pack everything up at the end of a session, ensuring that all Spheros are powered down and "asleep", everything in its correct box and easy to access for the next time. I want this group of about twenty students to be able to assist me when I start using these robotic balls with middle primary classes. One test lesson with a class in my building taught me that one teacher on his or her own will struggle to get first timers up and going without headaches galore. Having some expert Leaders on hand to help with connection, modelling appropriate care and encouragement will be of benefit to all parties. The teacher will appreciate the support, the students in the class will get a better lesson and the leaders will have helped others in their learning and put their particular skills to great use.

2 Comments

For someone who likes technology, particularly for learning, I have never been that interested in the field of robotics. For all of this recent focus on coding and programming in education, I haven't really got swept up in becoming personally skilled or knowledgeable in the area. I recognise its importance but have to admit to putting things like Lego MindStorms in the "too hard" basket. My interest has always been in the internet and like many self taught learners, it's easy to play to my own strengths and steer away from might be a steep learning curve out of my comfort zone.

The recent release of the Australian Curriculum for Technologies (pending final endorsement) has renewed the focus on specific ICT and digital technology skills. The Technologies curriculum is now split into two specific subjects - Digital Technologies and Design & Technology. The latter of these contains much of the SACSA Design & Technology curriculum and its focus on Design/ Make/ Appraise so in general, most of my primary school colleagues feel comfortable with the expectations of that subject. The Digital Technologies curriculum is a more specific focus on skills and knowledge that our previous state curriculum spent time integrating throughout the curriculum. So it feels a little bit like subject matter that is making a comeback even though we know that digital technologies work at a more sophisticated and lower cost point in our daily lives than even ten years ago.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ocg_bilder/8571558534/

We held one of our student free days as an Australian Curriculum focus, and had two DECD consultants spend half of the day focussing on the Digital Technologies curriculum. 2015 is a familiarisation year and we looked at several of the key concepts like computational thinking and programming. We looked at and used BeeBots and one of our talented upper primary teachers showed how her work with Lego MindStorm robotics was giving students opportunity to program. This teacher has been totally self taught after recognising the need within the upper primary students and led the way in overhauling our resources for Lego Robotics. She has spread her expertise across the whole five class unit, and even fostered interest through a lunchtime club. So, again, I know her work in this area is good but I have never dabbled using these tools myself. The BeeBots are great - simple in terms of setting out a sequence of commands and very accessible for early years students. After the day, I had a lot of teachers requesting that our meager supply of these robots be replenished. I've ordered them and they are on their way.

So, Beebots filled that need for the programming part of our new curriculum nicely for our Early Years students, and MindStorms is targetted at the Upper Primary area so I asked the consultants what would be best for the Middle Primary Students (Year 2, 3, 4) and their suggestion was the Probot. I then remembered that there were four of these sitting in a tub in my office! These were from one of the closing schools (my school was formed in 2011 from 3 smaller sites) and hadn't been touched in four years. To my mind, they weren't that much more sophisticated than the BeeBots, and when I went to purchase some, the price for each was over $160. That was $100 more than a BeeBot - withe major differences being that it was larger (not really a plus) and had an input screen so that instead of pushing > four times, I could key in 4> for the same result. Not exactly a quantum leap forward in extending programming skills, and potentially could have students complaining that Probots were boring and they were doing the same stuff as they would have with the BeeBot.

So sitting at my desk, I was hesitant to buy the fleet of Probots for the school because of these concerns. So, I turned to my trusty ally, the internet, as I was sure that there must be a better alternative to the Probot. Something to bridge the gap between BeeBot and Lego Robotics - but unique and engaging in its own way. I remembered that I had something that might be useful in my neglected delicious account - and found Romo. This is a neat idea where you plug an iPhone into a robotic base and interact with it. This was promising but not quite what I was after. The school isn't flush with iPad Touches and iPhones so I went looking anew.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/karasutech/14150146105/

Then I found what I was after - Sphero. Basically a ball shaped robot, controlled via apps on a tablet or device. The site was informative and I liked the fact that it linked into its own Education section. One of the Apps where I could imagine potential was MacroLab where users can create macros; basically long lines of commands in order to get Sphero to perform a particular action or routine. I could see the programming aspect coming into focus - but unlike MindStorms where the robots being built are very sophisticated, the ball robot was conceptually very simple. I watched some videos, and went to see Marg, my line manager, who has a deep background in digital learning to see whether her impressions matched mine.

My original thought was to buy one and play with it myself to work out the potential. Marg was more confident. "Buy a class set if you think that they are what you want," was her reassuring reply.

So I did.

I ordered them from the Sphero US store, and they arrived in under a week. (I am still waiting on the BeeBots, ordered from an Australian company!) I paid the GST import duty and bought power adaptors as they shipped with the US version. I bought covers for the Spheros and several Terrain packs which have click and hold pieces to create obstacles and barriers to manouevre the Sphero through. I also purchased an original Sphero on eBay (I ordered Sphero 2's for the school) for $46 as an investment in my own professional learning.

So, they are pretty cool and I think that they will serve the purpose I envisage. I had a search through my blogging connections to see if I could find anyone I knew using them for learning - my only link was to Wes Fryer's STEM resources as part of his after school Maker's club. He had four of the beasts and was feeling well resourced - but I had ordered fifteen!

How does Sphero work? Basically, the ball needs to be charged prior to use on its own induction stand. Three hours charging gives the user an hour's worth of constant use. I've downloaded about nine apps to try but the first one I have had students start on is Drive, a simple app that gets them to use the tablet as a remote control for the Sphero. They can control direction, speed and colour within that app. The standard Sphero app is wrapped up in a gaming interface where points accumulate for Missions and can be exchanged at the Core Exchange for pre-programmed Macros or tricks. This app is the one that gets users thinking beyond just getting it to move around and crash into things. An example is the Frog macro where Sphero turns green and jerks forward with a timed croak from the app. There are many others but these "tricks" then can lead to using MacroLab, where users can then create their own - the actual programming!

I'm only in the beginning stages of this all. I have been using my Digital Leaders at school to become the student experts using Spheros, and I have had to think through many logistical issues when using then ranging from charging to security, from sourcing enough iPads to dealing with multiple Spheros trying to connect to their iPad via Bluetooth all at the same time. These devices could suck up a lot of my time if I allow it, but I also still have to introduce them to staff, provide support in their use in classrooms and in planning for the coverage of the Digital Technologies curriculum. But this is still the first robot that I have got seriously excited about. We'll see how it progresses.