There’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.
For 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.
I 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.
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.
+ Self-contained programming environment
+ iOS and Android interfaces
- Lacks storage case
- Does without PC or Mac software
- No real manual