Your child’s future in programming might be rolling through the door any minute now. Sphero, a small spherical robot, lets them program movement, colour changes, and location awareness, all using a smartphone or tablet interface.

Sphero is one of two robots sold by Orbotix. The other is a cylindrical unit called Ollie, marketed as a more macho action toy. That toy is all about speed and durability, but Sphero is a more cerebral unit, with a heavy focus on learning. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t nimble, though. The waterproof orb can roll anywhere at 4.5 miles an hour

Controlled from an iOS or Android device, Sphero has a variety of sensors and other technologies that can interact with smartphones via its Bluetooth link. These include a locator, which lets a smartphone track the device’s position on the ground. It also has accelerometers that can be used for collision detection.

The Android version of the Sphero app can also connect with up to seven Spheros at the same time, and can tell where the devices are in relation to each other.

Telling Sphero what to do in code

The robot has a variety of apps, including games for kids (and grown-ups), but the thing that interests us are the apps that can teach kids procedural programming. One app, called MacroLab, can be used to send over 30 different kinds of instructions to the device, which will then execute them.

“Macrolab is very visual. You tap, add a command, set parameters, and once the commands are all listed in a certain order then you press play and send that command to the ball,” says Ross Ingram, community manager at the firm.

For more advanced programmers, there’s another programming app, called orbBasic.

“orbBasic steps it up so that they’re typing in commands. They can start to understand syntax and how things are structured,” Ingram says.

Kids using this program get to learn about creating variables and conditional statements, along with how to read sensor data.

“We see kids building some cool programs. This one kid at the start of the year built a program where the Sphero has a virtual box,” he recalls. If the Sphero went outside the region outlined in the program, it would change colour.

The orb is also designed to grow beyond that, Ingram explains. there is support for 12 different languages, including Objective C, Java, Ruby, and Python.

Curriculum

We’ve seen other educational robots here on Pedisedate, but one thing that’s different about Sphero is its curriculum focus. Orbotix went out of its way to create an educational learning plan that fits into school curricula, says Ingram.

“We wanted to make it so that you didn’t have to be a computer science teacher to teach the concepts that Sphero offered,” Ingram says. “That’s why we aligned all of our lessons with Common Core math and science standards.”

The organisation created SPRK (Schools/Parents/Robots/Kids), an educational program to support its push into that space.

The materials consist of eight core lessons, covering fourth and fifth grade common core standards. There are also four stem challenges, which are multi-day activities where kids are encouraged to develop tech projects, progressing through the prototype stage to the final build.

In one of these challenges, kids get to develop a program that guides Sphero through a maze with tight twists and turns.

Now, the firm is looking at extending its education program to integrate with curricula in other regions.

“We’re taking what we have and aligning it to whatever the grade standard is for the UK and Canada and a couple of other English-speaking countries,” Ingram says.

Smartphones

One thing always gives us an uneasy feeling when discussing educational tech toys for schools: price. Sphero needs a smartphone or tablet to work, and they don’t come cheap. Ingram has an answer for that, too.

Apple has an initiative called ConnectED, and they partnered with 115 schools in the US. They’re outfitting them soup to nuts with computers, iPads, and Internet, and we’re donating a large number of Spheros to these schools,” he says.

“A lot of the schools that we’re donating to have kids that are from lo- income families and qualify for free reduced lunches. We align with Apple to make technology more accessible.”

Ingram hopes that the little spherical robot has pulled off the hardest trick of all: tricking kids into learning, through play. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘well-rounded education’.

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