How a little spherical robot is teaching kids to code

Sphero's rotund robot can run mazes, light up, or beep like BB-8, but it is designed to help children learn how to code.

Stuart Ramson/Invision for Disney Consumer Products/AP/File
George Stephanopoulos (l.) looks on as Evan, no last name given, of EvanTubeHD, a digital star from the Maker Studios network, unboxes the LEGO Star Wars Millennium Falcon and the Star Wars BB-8 App-Enabled Droid from Sphero, on 'Good Morning America' in September.

Artificial intelligence is typically about helping a machine, whether it's a search algorithm or a rescue robot, learn how to learn, but a round, Bluetooth-capable robot by Sphero is designed to teach.  

And what skill could be more appropriate for a robot teacher than coding? 

Sphero has released the latest update on a child-friendly, spherical robot that debuted in 2011. The SPRK robot (pronounced "spark") follows instructions via tablet or smartphone, and its Lightning Lab app walks users through drag-and-drop communication with the robot, Engadget's Edgar Alvarez reported. The SPRK can run a maze, paint, or model systems of planetary motion, with hundreds of activities and challenges that many tech teachers are incorporating into lesson plans.

In recent years, schools have incorporated programming into traditional curriculum, and creative tools to teach coding in new ways are in high demand. Sphero's SPRK is one platform for students to develop those skills through play.

The Sphero robot highlights the practical aspects of programming for students in the classroom, wrote Sam Patterson, who teaches technology to elementary school students, on the blog "The Cool Cat Teacher":  

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.

The students not only solve word problems in real space, but they also learn basic programming languages in short, concrete steps and watch the results in the robot's movement. 

"It's very difficult to stay interested when you type in lines and lines of code without ever really seeing a return on the investment," said the teacher of an after-school program in Queen Creek, Ariz., where children learned basic programming with Sphero. "It allows them to get kind of an interesting gratification of their work."

Patterson begins classes by showing children just a few of SPRK's features, then leaving time to experiment with what they know. He creates starter programs ahead of time, which he can email to students if they need extra help. Patterson suggests using tape to create paths for the Sphero to work through, and he labels each SPRK to match its corresponding iPad and keep the flock of robots in line. 

The latest update to the SPRK is designed to help teachers, such as Patterson work with several robots in a classroom setting. It answers to a stronger Bluetooth signal, making the robots less likely to intercept each other's instructions, Scott Stein reported for CNET.

Sphero is not the only tool to teach programming, as Apple's new Swift Playgrounds and a recently released Hopscotch mobile app serve a similar purpose. 

The $130 Sphero robot is unusual in its form – the waterproof, durable sphere lends itself to a school setting. The newest Sphero's default mode is silent, but with a sound option for users who want their robot to "talk" like R2D2 as it rolls, and it has a clear, scratch-resistant coating so children can watch its digital organs at work.

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