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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

(Re)Invent Your World

LBbubblemachineThere’s nothing worse than a STEM kit that can yield only one or two items, but Little Bits’ Gizmos & Gadgets can be made into a dozen different projects. The possibilities range from a wirelessly controlled rover to a bubble machine. Created with help from Lego, the MIT Media Lab, Georgia Tech and the Rhode Island School of Design, kit has lots of electronics, wheels, motors and more. Plus, if you don’t mind breaking the rules, who know what you and your students can create. It costs $200.

Small Change

SearcherMicroscopes and magnifying glasses have been the stuff of science classrooms for generations, but they may be on the way out with Searcher. Basically, a tiny camera head on a 39-inch flexible neck, Searcher can get close, really close, to items. You can see the head of an insect, what a printed page looks like close up and with its 6 LED lights what’s really down the drain or behind the walls. Just plug it into an Android, iPhone or iPad and it brings the world a little closer with 1,280 by 720 video. The best part is that it can have multiple WiFi connections so that everyone can not only see, but can capture images for a lab or classroom activity. It’s a Kickstarter project that hopes to sell for $295.

STEM sans Wires

Action.gw-temp.ga-ipad._ice._freezing-point-depression-of-ice._salt._high-school.001.590.332Look at the typical lab bench during a STEM lab and you’re likely to see a tabletop dominated by a tangle of wires and cables. No more, with Vernier’s Go Wireless family of wireless sensors, which can connect you with the data without a cord in sight.

In addition to dedicated temperature, pH, heart-rate and exercise probes, Vernier has made Go Wireless much more versatile with the Go Wireless Link module that allows the system to work with more than 40 existing Vernier sensors. The list includes everything from accelerometers to UV light sensors, but lacks the ability to connect with a weighing balance or a microphone. It’s a sure bet that Vernier will come out with more sensors for this line as time goes on.

As is the case with the dedicated sensors, the Link line connects wirelessly with either the company’s LabQuest 2 handheld or its iOS and Android Graphical Analysis apps. On the downside, the system lacks the ability to work with a Chromebook, PC or Mac wirelessly, but Vernier is working on support for these platforms.

Product.gw-link-tp._hero.001.1280.721After getting and installing the app, you’ll need to get the probe and the pad communicating with each other. All the available sensors show up on-screen and connect in about 20 seconds, so there’s no time wasted getting the gear to work.

The Link’s case has LEDs that show it’s on and connected. Inside, it has a 250-milliamp hour battery pack that can power it for a school day. It’s recharged either with an included USB cable that snaps onto the Link or Vernier’s $40 Go Wireless Recharging Station that lets you charge up eight Links devices at once.

Once it’s connected, you can dig into the sensor’s ability, its software version and its all-important battery level. You can even rename it so that a classroom of kids can latch onto the right device.    

This is where the Graphical Analysis software takes over. It can accommodate up to three simultaneous graphs, show just the data as a chart or display each sensor’s output. It all comes together with the app’s fever graphs, which automatically adjust the range and scale to comfortably fit the data.

IMG_0048Before you get started, you can have the class press the icon in the upper left that looks like a pencil and paper to make a prediction. Then, let the lab proceed to see if they’re correct. At any time students can make predictions by scribbling on the graph.

As is the case with its other gear, Vernier comes into its own with its library of labs and activities that are in its printed books and on its Web site. There’s no shortage of YouTube videos to show how to do things.

The system works equally well with an iPad and an Android tablet. Go Wireless Link can not only help neaten up the lab but lets kids use their phones to collect data if the school doesn’t have enough tablets.



Vernier Go Wireless Link


+ Wireless sensor connection

+ iOS and Android data collection and analysis apps

+ Works with LabQuest 2 hardware

+ Supports 40 sensors

+ Good lab outlines available

+ Charging bay for 8 devices


- Ignores many of Vernier’s sensors

- Needs to be charged periodically



Tomorrow’s Science Education, Today

Planet 3There’s no shortage of online science curriculum, but the upcoming Planet3 looks very promising. It’s a nature and physical sciences site aimed at middle school science classrooms that is led by Tim Kelly, the former president of National Geographic and it uses the planet as a way to teach not only the expected STEM subjects, but the arts as well. Everything will be NGSS-based and will use games and interactivity to lure students into its content while having them use data and observations to build their own knowledge base. Look for it later this year, but you can see a preview of it right now.

Put Together World

BrackitzPlay can quickly turn into a physics lesson of how to build a bridge, tower or even a tablet stand. It’s all thanks to the innovative Brackitz connectors, plastic clips that connect wooden strips, allowing kids to explore their inner-builder. Pricing ranges from a $30 starter kit to the 400-piece Building Center that comes in a plastic crate on wheels and costs $230.


ME6798_330_163399Put away your homemade physics-class projectile launching gear because PASCO has a better alternative. The Mini Projectile Launcher and Smart Gate kit has everything you'll need to let kids test a variety of projectiles and measure their aerodynamic qualities. In addition to a pair of photo gates for accurate velocity readings, the kit lets students adjust the angle of launch. It all clamps to a tabletop and costs $289.

The Heat is ON

Flir_Phone6_front_camera_WithThermal_V1[1]If you thought the STEM world couldn’t support two small infrared sensors that snap onto a phone or tablet, you (and I) would be dead wrong. That’s because FLIR, the leading designer and manufacturer of infrared products, has a slightly different take on visualizing thermal energy. The $250 FLIR One is a little more expensive than the Seek Thermal camera and has a more limited temperature range, but can show students what heat looks like.

 At 1.2- by 2.5- by 0.7-inches, it is twice as big and heavy as the Seek Thermal. That’s because in addition to the company’s sensitive Lepton IR sensor, the FLIR One camera has its own built-in 350 milliamp-hour battery. On the downside, it isn’t charged when it’s connected to a phone or tablet. You’ll need to plug it into a computer’s USB port or a micro-USB adapter.

Unlike the Seek thermal device, the One has a digital camera alongside its thermal camera. This allows it to precisely overlay images onto its thermal maps. The Seek uses the phone’s native camera for this, which can end up distorting the image. As is the case with Seek, there are versions for an iPhone or iPad (with a Lightning plug) or an Android phone or tablet (with a micro-USB plug).

There’s a big gotcha with Android tablets or phones, though. Because there’s no agreement on which way the micro-USB plug is oriented, for some devices – like a Nexus 5 (which I use) – you’ll need an adapter that changes the plug’s orientation. It works fine with a Samsung Galaxy S6 Active phone. There’s software for iOS and Android, but, as is the case with the Seek device, there’re no apps for PCs, Macs and Chromebooks.

Flir_20150824T141516Once everything is connected and the device’s free app has been loaded, you’ll get a spectacular view of infrared energy. It’s ready for lessons and requires little or no set up. FLIR’s software makes the One shine with the ability to overlay visual images over the thermal ones with nine different of backgrounds at 640- by 480 resolution, although the color coding doesn’t correspond to temperature.

In addition to recording thermal videos and saving them as .mp4 files, FLIR provides software for doing panoramas, time-lapse and close-ups. It can show the hotspot in Fahrenheit or Centigrade units. On the other hand, its temperature range is much more limited with the ability to show anything between -20 to 120-degrees Centigrade versus -40 to 330-degrees C. It can detect differences as small as 0.1-degree C. For most teaching work, it won’t matter, but might be a constraint for recording things like reaction temperatures in a chemistry lab.

A big step forward for thermal imaging is that the One has an automatic thermal shutter that is whisper quiet. By contrast, the Seek’s shutter requires periodic recalibration that makes an annoying clicking noise. Unlike Seek, FLIR has gotten third parties to write software for the device. For instance, Owens Corning has an app that lets you check a house, office or school for heat leaks and energy efficiency, making for a very nice energy conservation lab or classroom activity.

It comes with a hard case and charging cord, but no AC adapter and includes a one-year warranty. Even with its limitations, the FLIR ONE is the ticket for showing what’s hot and what’s not.





+ Inexpensive infrared sensor

+ Excellent visualization software

+ iOS and Android versions

+ Easy to set up and use

+ 640-by 480-resolution

- Some phones or tablets require an adapter

- Limited temperature range

Freebee Friday: State of the STEM Art

Stem-ed-report._2015._cover.001.250.324What is the state of the art for science, technology, engineering and math education? Vernier’s free “2015 National Survey on STEM Education” can answer that and other burning questions with information on everything from state curriculum standards and adoption of NGSS to challenges facing STEM education. It’s there for your download, just register.


Coding with Dash and Dot

Wonder workshopWhen I played with and learned with Wonder Workshop’s Dot and Dash robots, I was disappointed that it was long on teaching potential but short on actual curriculum items. That has changed a lot with the introduction of 21 common core and NGSS aligned lesson plans for K-through-fifth graders. They can help a class of kids (and teachers for that matter) master the basics of programming and even submit lessons of their own for others to use.



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