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Freebee Friday: Story Teller

SlateTelling a story is now as easy as thinking up an idea, adding images, video and music and letting the story tell itself. That is, with Adobe’s free Slate app for the iPad, which now also works from a regular old Web browser. After writing your story, you can now justify it right, left or center as well as draw images from Lightroom albums along with any captions the already have. An android version is on the way.


The World is Now Flat

Acer B346C Series Displays Right AngleThe new generation of ultrawide curved screens have met their match with Acer’s 34-inch Acer B346CK display. It does a lot for $600 with the ability to put an amazing 3,440 by 1,440 resolution image on-screen with 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut. In addition to showing two streams at once, the B346CK has both a USB 3.0 hub and can work with MHL-enabled phones while charging them.


Five Easy Video Editors

Video editors compositeTurning a series of clips into cogent videos is a skill that all kids need to learn, but which platform is right for 21-st century story telling? I think that kids need to master the ability to edit video on all the major platforms in use at schools, from PCs and Macs to iPads, Androids and Chromebooks. That way they won’t be caught short on video skills.

Not only can you use any of these apps to create visual repots on science and English lessons but enhance each child’s story-telling skills. Next stop, Hollywood.

Windows Movie Maker

MoviemakerOnce a part of every Windows computer’s software, Movie Maker is now relegated to a free download that anyone can add to their system. Version 12 still uses a timeline for creating a video and works with all recent versions of Windows. In addition to adding and rearranging clips, you can work with transitions and even get rid of camera shake. When you’re done you can share the movie online or add it to a Web site for the world to see.

KineMaster Pro

KinemasterAndroid tablets can now make full movies with KineMaster Pro. The center of attention is its multi-track timeline where you can slip in videos and edit them on a frame-by-frame basis as well as add audio tracks and transitions. Rather than having to use a mouse, everything can be manipulated by a finger or stylus for things like adding titles. The completed movie can be shared via YouTube, Facebook, Google+ and Dropbox.



IPhone5s_iPadAir_iMac27_MBA13_iMovieThe iMovie app that comes with Macs puts the emphasis on simple movie-making with a few frills, like Apple’s excellent online how-to section. One of the rare video editing programs that can handle 4K resolution, iMovie has templates that you just type in a name and drop in the clips. You can take that to a new level with the ability to use iPad vids as well as ones from a camcorder or phone.


We Video

WevideoDespite being basic and not exactly high-performance systems, Chromebooks are surprisingly good at editing videos. WeVideo lets you use a storyboard approach for a mini-movie or the more traditional timeline. Just drag a variety of files into position to be integrated and the app does the rest. If you don’t have what you need, the program includes 100 royalty-free effects and sound clips as well as the ability to use slow motion or time lapse effects. You can have kids team up to make movies and the free version allows up to 5-minutes of final movie time. The K-12 package costs $249 a year for a classroom of up to 50 students and allows each student to save an hour a month of videos and 5GB of online storage space.


Pinnacle Studio Pro

Studio proVideo editing on iPads takes a big step forward with Pinnacle’s Studio and Studio Pro apps. The basic Studio software is free and lets users quickly create basic videos in a timeline format, while the $15 Pro version adds the ability to edit in up to 4K resolutions and save the results online.



Active Watch

Timex metroIf you think you’re spending too much time sitting and not enough time moving around and burning calories, Timex’s Metropolitan+ watch might give you some get up and go. The $125 device has a built in activity monitor that tracks every step you take and can, with the free phone or tablet app, tell you how much distance you’ve covered and how many calories you’ve burned. Unlike smart watches, the Metro’s battery should last for a full year, not a full day, and the watch can be paired with one of seven stylish bands.

Video Only When You Need It

VMC3040_White_3-4Lft2_A_MedResInstead of always recording and taking up gigabytes of storage space, Netgear’s Arlo IP security cams only create video after they’ve sensed motion in their area. This motion-triggering not only allows there to be a battery powered camera with a six-month battery, but the ability to save online a week’s worth of clips for free; if you think you’ll need them for two weeks, it costs $10 a month. The latest is the Arlo Q 1080p HD Security Camera with Audio (VMC3040), which requires an AC adapter but adds HD resolution and audio to the mix. It can even work in extremely low light because it is also an infrared camera. Both use WiFi to connect and transfer images, but the $220 VM3040 has an ultra-wide 130-degree field of view, which means it will catch perpetrators without requiring any zooming or panning.

Brighter with LEDs

XJ-V1_F_02The latest solid-state projector from Casio not only boosts brightness but does it at no extra cost compared to a conventional classroom projector. Rated at 3,000 lumens, the EcoLite XJ-V2 is 10-percent brighter than the XJ-V1 model and uses Casio’s SSI illumination engine that combines a laser and LEDs. It delivers XGA resolution and not only uses less power, but the light source could last as long as 20,000 hours, or the equivalent of seven or eight lamp changes.

Freebee Friday: 5 Free STEM Lessons

IEEE1Electronics might not seem like a likely class in high school, but the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE, has 400 online eLearning classes on a variety of STEM subjects. Each has been peer reviewed and is self-paced. They have glossaries, tests and many of the course are available in three levels. For now, five of them are available for free: Cloud Based Solutions for Big DataCloud Computing Enabling Technologies4G Broadband LTETransportation Electrification: Applications of Electric Drive Trains;Smart Grid: From Concept to Reality.

Freebee Friday: Build Lesson Plans, Together

Participate_learning_homepage_960Need an online space to collaborate on new lesson plans? Participate Learning has created Collections, a place where teachers can work with and compile educational videos, games, Web sites and apps along with other teachers.  Everything sits in a digital folder that any member of the group can access, work with and leave comments.

USB 3.0 Help

Satechi_HUB_gun_2Got one of those new notebooks that only have that odd USB 3.0 port and there’s nothing to plug in? Take heart, Satechi’s Type-C Hub Adapter can turn it into connection central. The $35 hub plugs right into a Type C connector and yields three Type-A USB 3.0 ports as well as flash card slots for full size SD and the smaller micro-SD cards. You can get it in gray, silver and gold.


Take STEM for a Spin

Sprk sphero front_1024There’s no argument that the future will require an army of innovative programmers to write, refine and protect the products and services that we can now only dream of today. Building this cadre of creative coders can start early with Sphero, one of the most innovative ways to teach programming I’ve seen.

The key is that the $130 Sphero SPRK Edition is unlike any other way to teach programming because rather than an elaborate robot that takes hours to build, Sphero comes fully assembled and ready for class. It fact, as its name implies, Sphero is built around a ball that’s stuffed with electronics, motors and sensors so that kids (and adults) can control it from afar. In fact, it’s a great way to teach lessons on physics and programming at the same time.

At its essence, Sphero is a 2.8-inch polycarbonate plastic ball that puts the emphasis on interaction. Because it’s shell is clear, you can see its components and LEDs, providing a window on how Sphero works. The SPRK Edition uses the second-generation Sphero ball and comes with its inductive charging base, a notepad, protractor and stubby pencil.

If you think this makes Sphero too delicate and fragile for daily classroom use, you’d be wrong because it can stand up to the clumsiest kids, comes with a one-year warranty and has an optional soft rubber cover. There’s also an optional skateboard-park ramp and a Chariot for pulling things. Together, the accessories sell for $60.

Getting started is easy and you’ll likely find that most of the class can use their phones to communicate with Sphero, while others can use tablets. This makes it one of the least expensive ways to inject some STEM education into a curriculum short on cash and computers. There’s free software for recent iPhones, iPads and just about any Android device made, although Sphero lacks a communications and programming portal for Macs, PCs and Chromebooks. You can use the Blocky interface for controlling the ball with these platforms

Sphero sprk edition 5.1For those thinking of studying Sphero’s manual before class time, think again, because there isn’t a formal manual, just a few info sheets. In fact, the User Manual is nothing more than the warranty in several languages. There is a Quick Start Guide that can help get going, but the best bet is to just load the software and start playing because there’s no right or wrong way to use Sphero. The company provides a nice section of educational software and projects.

After you’ve loaded the software, you’ll need to connect it with a Sphero ball, and the interface provides screens that show and tell how to do this. It worked on the first try with an iPad Mini and Samsung Tab S2. The first time it connected, the ball immediately did a firmware upgrade to incorporate the latest software.

The next step is to explore Sphero and how it works, which should take a few minutes of running a pre-made program written in Sphero’s Oval language. The programming code is based on the popular C language, making it a stress-free introduction to real-world programming.

Oval has its commands front and center in rounded rectangular boxes. They are stacked from top to bottom in the order of execution. You can’t make changes, but that’s the next step.

The ball’s first programs change the ball’s color and move it around on the floor. The Sphero SPRK interface is simple, but layered. In its default Actions settings, you can add commands from a row of boxes at the bottom for everything from speed, heading and stop to spin, color and fade. Below that is another row that lets you change Actions to Controls, Operators, Variables, Sensors and Events. If you flip the block over, you can see the intricate coding behind the command.

This gives the user an enormous amount of power to create complex programs. All you do is drag items from below to the next slot in the programming interface and adjust them with additional parameters or conditions if need be. Be careful because you need to hold the pointer over the item you want for a second or two for it to get grabbed and the interface can look cramped on a phone. You can rearrange the order and make changes after you run the program.

Sphero_sprk3I played with Sphero for hours with a 15-year old and had a great time learning and using Oval without realizing we were actually doing some heavy programming. We made the ball move around the room, stop when it encountered a wall and had it change color as it made moves.

It ran for more than an hour on a charge, but it charges quickly. That means that Sphero is probably best used every other period or something like twice a day. The good news is that despite it rolling off of a table several times and bouncing around on the floor, Sphero wasn’t damaged.

Sphero’s Web site has a bunch of lessons that should keep an elementary, middle- or high-school STEM lab humming for several weeks. There are projects that range from working with Sphero’s colors and tracing circles on the floor to bowling. My favorite is an activity that explores percent error. The lessons have well thought-out worksheets and guides that were put together with teachers. Others have added their own lessons, but the company doesn’t have an online forum for teachers and kids to share them.

For those who grasp Sphero’s philosophy and programming language, the company has a software developers kit. With it you can hack into the ball and make of it what you want.

At $130 per ball, Sphero is a bargain that can teach a vital 21-st century skill while making it seem like fun. Packages of 10 cost $1,200 and there are discounts beyond that for higher volume sales.

4h5b1072 (7)One thing you can’t get, though, is a storage or carrying case other than the cardboard box Sphero comes in. That said, Sphero fit perfectly into a storage box made for Christmas tree ornaments, making it an inexpensive way to store the balls when they’re not in use or carry a classroom’s worth between periods.

All told, expect that you’ll need to spend a period introducing Sphero and Oval to students followed by several hours of projects and programming sessions where they’ll work alone or in small groups. In fact, the best part of it is that Sphero’s true worth comes out after the classroom time is done when students start to think about how to hack, change and use what they’ve learned. In other words, with Sphero, you can have a ball with programming while teaching how to truly interact with computers.


Sprk chargerbaseball single small

Sphero SPRK Edition



+ Self-contained programming environment

+ Inexpensive

+ iOS and Android interfaces

+ Accessories

+ Lessons


- Lacks storage case

- Does without PC or Mac software

- No real manual



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.