## Sphero Bridge Building

Every year, my 2nd grade GT students build bridges as part of a unit on Structures.  We have K’nex kits, and they enjoy learning about the different types of bridges as well as making their own versions.

This year I really wanted to have them do more than follow the instructions in a kit. When I saw the Sphero Bridge Building Challenge, I knew immediately what we were going to do.  I modified the lesson plans a bit, borrowing from some other bridge-building lessons I’ve seen, and created yesterday’s challenge.

I gave teams the task of building a bridge that would span a 14-inch gap between two table edges.  It would need to be strong enough to drive a Sphero across, and cost the least amount of “money” possible.

Of course, they didn’t have to spend real money.  I put a bunch of materials on one of my tables and gave them a chart listing the costs:

• Popsicle Sticks – \$100 ea.
• Straws – \$50 ea.
• String – \$20 per foot
• Paper – \$10 per sheet
• Tape – \$5 per 6 in. (the 1st 6 in. are free)

The students had to plan the materials they would use and then figure out the projected cost.  They had to sketch their bridges. Once I approved their plans, they could build.

I was so impressed with their planning!  They weighed the Sphero, used string to measure its circumference, did complicated calculations of the costs of materials, and measured straws and popsicle sticks with great care.  Great discussions ensued about the best designs for their bridges.  A lot of math was done – most of it correctly.

In the end, two groups succeeded in completing and testing their Sphero bridges.  Two did not.  Their reflections afterward were fun to read.  One student wrote, “We got our bridge done in time but we could have gotten it done earlyer if we had not been arguing.”   All of the students thought planning was essential to a successful project – except one, who stated, “planing wast of time.”  Another commented that the time it takes to complete building something can be delayed by things like, “how prodoctove your workers are.”  His teammate was more blunt, “Our bridge did not get finish because some people don’t work.”  They learned another reason for building delays can be when you don’t plan for enough materials and you have to wait for more to be delivered ( i.e. when there is a line of students waiting for Mrs. Eichholz to dole out more pieces of tape).

I will definitely add this to my lesson plans again next year.  It was one of those experiences where you find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the utter chaos but completely awed by the creativity and engagement of your students.  At the end of the activity you feel the contradictory, but welcome, combination of being both drained and energized.

## Painting with Sphero

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on a #makered Twitter chat and somehow the conversation turned to using the Sphero robots to paint.  I was hoping to do this with my 4th graders because we are studying mathematical art and I thought it would be a good way to tie it in with the programming they have learned – but I had no idea how to go about it.

My colleagues on Twitter immediately offered fabulous suggestions: use tempera paint, try it with the “nubby” to give it texture, and buy a cheap plastic swimming pool to contain the mess.  One teacher offered to try it the next day with her students and, as promised, sent me pictures of the results.  Claire (@pritchclaire) also gave me the suggestion to stay away from red paint as it kind of stains the Sphero.

After receiving all of this great advice, I introduced the topic to my 4th graders.  Then we set about coming up with a plan.  First, they learned how to program the Sphero to make polygons using the Macrolab app.  (We used the free 2D Geometry lesson from Sphero offered on this page.)  There is an app that allows you to drive the Sphero free-hand, but it’s difficult to make exact shapes that way.  Macrolab gave us the tools to be more precise.

The students needed a good 90 minutes to practice making different polygons.  The next step was to sketch a design. I absolutely loved listening to the conversations about the math involved as they tried to figure out the angle degrees for each command.  Despite their experience with the complexities of Sphero programming, the students started out with grand, complicated sketches.  After doing dry runs, however, they realized they needed to scale things down a bit.  Sketching and practicing took about another 90 minutes.

After many practices, each group came to our improvised drawing board.  Although I loved the plastic pool idea, I realized that the bottom wouldn’t be flat enough to keep the Sphero in control.  I brought a piece of drywall to school that had been sitting in our garage.  We used some extra cardboard to add some sides to it.

With disposable gloves on, the students manually rolled the Sphero around in a puddle of paint, then set it up on the “canvas” and started their program.  I should mention here that I was describing my day to my husband and he said, “You should have just put the paint in a plastic baggie and rolled the Sphero in that.”  Hopefully I will remember that idea next year…

As you can see, the results of using a programmed Sphero were a bit different than the above photo.  Personally, either method looks fabulous to me.  The students agreed.  As soon as they were done, one of them immediately said, “We should find out if we can hang these in the front foyer!”

Can you identify when they used the nubby for their lines?

You can see some video of our “technique” below.

After the experience we got into some good discussions about what art is and why the Sphero might not have always acted according to their expectations.  Although this probably isn’t a lesson that could happen in the regular classroom due to time and equipment constraints, I think it worked well for my little group of 6 students!

## Robot Olympics

Calling this activity “Robot Olympics” might have been a bit ambitious.  After all, there was really just one event and the only (and extremely tenuous) connection to the real-life Olympics was the fact that chariots were involved.

Nevertheless, “Robot Olympics” was the title of our program last Thursday.  Our after-school Maker Club had been exploring the world of robots for a couple of months – which mostly involved playing, not making.  So, we threw out the challenge for each group to build a chariot for their robot that would carry Dot, the tiny Wonder Workshop sidekick for Dash.

We have 4 different kinds of robots in B.O.S.S. HQ right now, and each one had its advantages and disadvantages for this challenge. To keep the playing field even, every robot was scored with the following criteria:

• Ability to carry Dot to the Finish Line
• Chariot Design
• Making it from the Start to the Finish Line
• Speed

Penalties were given for running into the bricks on the side and each time the “Robot Wrangler” had to put his or her hands on the robot to redirect it during the course.

The students working with Sphero built extremely elaborate chariots – only to find that Sphero would not budge with all of the extra weight.  The Cubelets teams were so excited about getting as many Cubelets together as possible that they barely had time to build their chariots.  Edison refused to behave predictably when detecting a black line, and Dash’s chariots kept falling off every time they were tested.

“This is good,” I told the students.  “You’re learning how to problem solve.  Remember, “Think, Make, Improve.”

In the end, every robot crossed the Finish Line.  Every student received a robot Spirit Stick.  Dash Team #1 walked away with “gold” medals.

What would I do differently?

Allot more time for the event, make sure the students test their robots on the course numerous times before the event, have 2 courses and 2 sets of judges so there isn’t so much wait time, ask more students to help run the event, and make the course out of something more durable than poster board so it can be reused.

Will we do it again next year?  Definitely – but it will be even better. Maybe we can add a discus throw or something so the “Robot Olympics” will seem less ostentatious…

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## Makerspace Essentials – Robots

I am frequently asked for advice on what materials to purchase for school maker spaces.  I am definitely not an expert on this topic, but I have gotten a couple of grants for B.O.S.S. HQ (Building of Super Stuff Headquarters) that have allowed me to try out different products.  I thought I would devote this week to sharing about a few items that I have judged to be well worth the money.

(If you intend to apply for a grant for a school maker space, be sure to research your district’s policies on spending grant money.  If you need to use approved vendors, then you should verify that you will be able to purchase the items you propose and that the vendor will accept your district’s preferred method of payment.)

We are about to wrap up our robot activities in Maker Club for this year, and I’ve learned a lot about the robots we have in our space.  If you are thinking of purchasing robots for your maker space, there are many factors to consider.  Of course, I didn’t consider any of those factors – just creativity potential.  We were also sent a couple of robots by companies for review.

Of course we have been learning as we experiment with various robots that they each have pros and cons.  Keeping them charged, for example, can be a challenge.  And the learning curve definitely varies.

I thought I would share some of the info I’ve gathered about the robots we have in case you would like to see a side-by-side comparison.  I’ve embedded the sheet I’m using to keep notes on each one.  It is a document I plan to update in the future with some of the other robots we are still trying out.  You can also access it here if you prefer not to have to scroll to see the details.

One thing that I would recommend is that you commit to buying at least 2 of whatever robot you decide on.  It helps for grouping – and when one of them has a dead battery or other troubleshooting is necessary.  For our Maker Club, we have 4 different types of robots, so the students rotated to each station to try them out.  Then, their groups were assigned a specific robot that they are currently preparing for our Robot Olympics.

If you have any questions about the robots, feel free to leave a comment on this post.  For more maker space resources, check out my Pinterest Board here.

## Sphero

To continue our Gifts for the Gifted series of 2014, I would like to recommend a little robot that looks like a toy but has a lot of educational potential.

I purchased a Sphero for my classroom late last May, and my students barely had time to unbox it before the school year ended.  As soon as they returned in August, they asked me when it would make its reappearance.  Some of you may remember that it was used by a group during our Cardboard Box Challenge this year.  Three groups of 5th graders worked together to make a huge Sphero maze that was several sections.  It was a big hit at our Cardboard Arcade!

The Sphero isn’t the easiest object to control.  That’s part of the fun. Using one of the “Nubby” covers can sometimes help, but it can also be a hindrance depending on the surface.

But the Sphero isn’t just about guiding a plastic ball around with your iPad.  Sam Patteson (@SamPatue) recently did a guest post on Cool Cat Teacher about how Sphero can be used in the classroom. Orbotix, the company who produces the Sphero, has a page of free lesson plans that you can use to teach math, programming, and other STEM subjects.  Courtney Pepe has used Sphero with augmented reality to inspire creative writing in her class.

If you’re a parent and not a teacher, you may be wondering why I am bringing up all of these educational options.  Don’t get me wrong; there are several apps that make the Sphero pure fun without necessarily being educational, and it can inspire creativity in those kids who like to “make.”  However, you may also want to consider buying one for your child and offering to loan it to his or her teacher for a week or two once your child starts running out of ideas at home.

You can purchase the Sphero at many retail stores, including Amazon. There is a newer product from Orbotix (Ollie) that may interest you as well.  However, I don’t have experience with it yet so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it.

If you are interested in seeing the other gifts I’ve recommended this year, as well as from years past, check out this Pinterest Board.