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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.


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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

Next Step All-in-One

Aspire_U5_2Acer recently showed off its new PCs and the U5-710 all-in-one manages to deliver an enviable mixture of style, performance and size. The system is just 1.5-inch thick, yet packs in an Intel sixth generation Core i5 or i7 processor, all the ports you could ever want and a 3-D camera. Its 23.8-inch touch screen not only can show full HD material and respond to 10 individual touch inputs, but the system can be ordered with high-performance Nvidia GeForce graphics hardware.

Power Up, Anywhere

31zBUA-0GrLIf there’s anything worse than running out of battery during a lesson, it’s not being able to find the right power adapter to quickly charge the phone or tablet. Spyder’s Commuter portable charger not only can charge any recent phone or slate, but has its own battery for when you’re running on empty. It all fits into the palm of your hand and can disappear into a briefcase or bag yet has a USB outlet to power a device as well as a 2,600 mili-amp hour battery pack; there’s also a car cigarette lighter adapter for the more mobile among us. In fact, all you’ll need is a charging cable, although the $50 package includes a micro-USB one for Android systems.

Stream without the Computer

UnnamedWhether it’s a podcast, music or the audio from a TED talk, you need a computer, like a phone, tablet or PC, to hear the audio, right? Well, no more with Streamz, the first headphones that cuts the computer out of the audio equation. The over-the-ear headset has a 1.6GHz processor, WiFi receiver, 36GB of storage space and an Android system inside. The closest thing to a personal audio machine, the Streamz headphones can play material from Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio and other services as well as audio stored on Google’s OneDrive online repository. It’s currently a Kickstarter campaign for $199, money well spent.

Freebee Friday: Who’s that Monster

Name the monsterMatific’s online educational games now include Name the Monster, a fun activity for kids to explore and practice their math skills. Four cute monsters appear in sequence from behind a theatrical curtain with a window below to type in a name in 11 characters or less. When the game is completed, the company will announce the most popular names. Personally, I rooting for “Pink Eye.”

Mimio Goes Mobile

Starter mimioThe newest version of MimioMobile is now ready for you and your school to try out. Because it runs as a Web service in a browser window, it will work on everything from a Mac and PC to iPads, Androids and Chromebooks; Mimio also has full apps for iOS and Android systems. The starter set is free to try out and comes with a good variety of sample lessons, quizzes and tips.


More Chromebook for the Money

Tosh cb 2 bWhile others try to serve up the cheapest Chromebook for the classroom, Toshiba has taken a step back and created its Chromebook 2 with one eye on value and the other on making it the best equipped Chromebook around. At $330, it is not the least expensive Chromebook, but it might be the most computer for the money.

Toshiba’s top-shelf approach to Chromebooks starts with the system’s silver case, which has a textured bottom and lid that not only feels good in the hand but makes it harder to accidentally drop. Rugged and solidly made, the Chromebook 2 appears to be able to stand up to the everyday drops and abuse at schools.

At 0.8- by 12.6- by 8.4-inches and 2.9-pounds, the Chromebook 2 is fractions of an inch smaller than Acer’s CB311 Chromebook 13 and 5-ounces lighter. With its tiny AC adapter, the entire package travels at 3.2-pounds. In other words, it should just as easily fit into a child’s backpack as in to a desk drawer for lunch or a between-periods break.

In addition to an Intel Celeron 3215U processor that runs at 1.7GHz, the $330 Chromebook 2 model 3300 that I looked at came with 4GB of RAM and 16GB of a solid state storage. That’s a big step up from Acer’s $250 Chromebook CB311’s NVidia K1 processor and 2GB of RAM. You can augment its storage potential with an inexpensive SD card and the system comes with two years of 100GB of online storage with GoogleDrive.

If performance counts for more than price, Toshiba also sells a Core i3-based version for $100 more. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s on a par with a mainstream Windows notebook.

Tosh cb 2 cThe CB35 Chromebook 2 has a good assortment of connections with a USB 2.0 as a USB 3.0 port. You can connect a projector or large display via its HDMI jack and the CB35 has an output jack for audio. It has the latest wireless with 802.11ac WiFi and the lack of a wired LAN port can be fixed by using a USB-to-LAN converter to plug into a network. If you want to use a wireless keyboard or speaker, the system has Bluetooth 4.0. 

Without a doubt, the center of attention of the CB35 is its superb 13.3-inch screen. While much of the competition, like the Asus Flip C100 have wide-XGA displays, the Chromebook 2’s screen shows full HD resolution and is among the brightest and richest displays available today. On the other hand, there’s no touch option that would have extended the Chromebook 2’s usefulness in schools.

Above the screen, the system has an HD Web cam and dual microphone array and below there’s a keyboard with comfortable 19.2mm keys and a large touchpad that measures 2.7- by 4-inches. Happily, for those who teach by the stray light of a projector, the keyboard is backlit. It does without a super-secure Trusted Platform Module, though, which can make remote authentication easier. It’s included on the Asus Flip C100.

While everything else is well placed, the Chromebook’s speakers end up under the keyboard and despite branded Skullcandy hardware sound better for spoken word programming than for playing music. It not only can sound muffled at times, but is weak in midrange tones. On the other hand, it gets surprisingly loud without any external speakers.

Tosh cb 2As far as performance goes, the Chromebook 2 is top shelf. It scored a 327.9ms on the SunSpider test as well as 15,273 on Google’s Octane 2.0 benchmark. This makes it about twice as powerful as the Asus Flip C100 and able to complete any school task.

This performance potential is, however, at the expense of battery life with the CB35’s battery powering the system for 8 hours. That’s less than either the Acer CB311 (at 9:10) or the Asus Flip C100 (at 9:20), but still should be fine for most teachers and students. It’s more than enough for the typical school day with some battery time left over for a movie, game or homework correction session. It comes with a 1-year warranty.

If a large screen and lots of power sound good, this Chromebook may not be the cheapest around, but it is among the best around.


Tosh cb 2 d

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35



+ Excellent configuration

+ Responsive keyboard

+ Large touchpad

+ Bright display

+ Excellent performance

+ Optional Core i3 processor

- Lacks touch-screen option

- Audio light on mid-range tones



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