If you are a teacher and you are alive, you have heard about the importance of teaching computer science to students. “Code, code, code!” is shouted from the pedagogical rooftops.
Don’t hate me, but I haven’t been excited about this concept. I tried Scratch many years ago, but between wrestling with the failing tech in my school’s computer lab and less than perfect early-in-teaching-career classroom management of 8 year olds, I was unimpressed with the outcome of learning. I scratched my Scratch plans.
Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with integrating creative use of technology in my lessons and classroom. We make movies, video games, and are Google gurus! But, still no coding.
Sphero rolled into my pedagogical practice. My school district is training teachers to roll out a computer science program, and I was chosen with several others to pilate some lessons. Among other things, we will be using SpheroEDU to share the coding experience with the students of East Penn. Spheros are exactly that; balls. They have mechanical parts inside of them that follow the commands that you input in an app on a device. They can roll, turn different colors, and make sounds. (Although the sounds come from the device, not the actual robot.)
When my teacher friends and I were initially introduced to the Sphero robots we were instructed to try to get it to do some tasks. We used a variety of coding methods and tried out several styles of lesson genres. It was fun, but I wasn’t completely hooked, yet.
— Miss Kling’s Class (@MissKling43) October 30, 2019
A recent get together of this team was assembled to begin creating lessons that would introduce and begin teaching coding to the 4th & 5th graders of East Penn. We were to come up with 3 lessons. A brainstorming session was followed by some discussion and voting. In the talk a theme emerged where we would introduce a narrative of insect study to the students. They were all going to experience the joys and difficulties of entomologists. The students would get their robots to study insects and eradicate invasive bugs: Debug. (One of our lessons is to clean up code of problems.) Notice how the targeted study focuses on a positive term for the animals: Insects, while the animals that are a problem (Spotted Lantern Flies have become a nuisance around Pennsylvania) are labeled negatively. Also, an obvious dual purpose of the storyline is to reinforce the necessity of clean coding, devoid of bugs.
This idea of purpose-driven instruction helped me see the coding lesson in a new light. Rather than tell my students to get the robot to make a square or go from an arbitrary point A to a pointless point B, I would be helping kids learn how to tackle real world problems.
With new inspiration and vigor, I returned to my third grade classroom where a case-full of unused Spheros sat in the corner. Let’s get to work, I thought, as I tore poster paper, uncapped markers, opened up bags of cups, and pulled out piles of pipecleaners. It was the day before Halloween, and an idea hit me: Monsters Inc. I would make grids with a door in one square and a kid sleeping in another. Students would dress up cups to look like monsters. These cups would float on top of a programed Sphero robot. They would need to get from the door to the bed and back to the door again. Also, the Sphero would need to create a scary sound. (This was attempted after figuring out the code for travel.)
Prior to the lesson, I got out all of the supplies. I made one more poster than I needed for 9 groups of 3 to have their own. Each poster had the door and bed in a different location. I did this incase an outstanding group had solved every coding combination for the map they were initially given. They could try a new one. (Another way of creating challenge would be to place items on the map, like wardrobes or piles of clothing, that the robot would have to avoid.)
To begin the lesson I placed one poster on the board to show students. I explained that they would be “playing” Monsters Inc. They were going to get monsters to go from the door to the sleeping child. Most students were familiar with the concept from the popular movie. I explained that the monster world was powered by an electricity that ran on the screams of kids. In the movie, monsters were trained and worked hard at sneaking into bedrooms and scaring children. I reminded everyone that it was important that the monster get back to the door, so that it could get back to the monster world. Otherwise it would be trapped in the human-parallel universe! “Aaaaahhh!”
Before leaving the carpet, I showed the students how the block-coding in the Sphero app worked. I drew the “Roll” command on the board with labels explaining/reminding what each bubble was for: Direction, speed, and duration (time).
While student groups decorated their cup/monsters with pipe cleaners, I had one kid at a time get a robot. Teams were separated around the room. The only parameter was for student groups to try to keep the robot on the paper. Needless to say, there were varying levels of success. One group figured out how to introduce changing the light of the Sphero. I didn’t bother telling them that the sleeping child (drawn on the paper) might not see the light change under the monster cup;) I was happy for the intrigue-guided discovery!
I only had to get everyone’s attention once or twice. One time I wanted to mention only changing one variable at a time when adjusting the rolling command: Rather than changing both speed and duration, just alter one or the other. After giving the change a try, make another adjustment. Keep going until the movement is just right. After I witnessed one group make the discovery that you should “Aim” the robot before placing the cup over it, I shared that with everyone, adding that they must “practice-run” the Sphero with the cup, because the drag of the “monster” might affect its movement.
The whole experience was a smashing success. Everyone wanted to keep working on it, but recess time dragged us all outside. We put everything away, until the next day.
The morning of Halloween, I had students get the Spheros out again. This time, I wanted to know exactly what they were coming up with. Students did not have to use a “monster”. (Because having a Sphero roll up to you, while you are sleeping and growl, was scary enough;) I put together a slideshow that I pushed out through Google classroom, much like I did recently with the Plural Noun BloxelsEDU maze video game lesson. Students were to take screenshots of their successful codes that got the Sphero from the door to the bed and back to the door. The screenshots were then imported into the slideshow for me to view.
The room erupted in coding.
Students nearly lost their minds when, halfway through the experience, I showed them that they could get the Sphero to say anything you typed into a speech command. From that time forward, “Hey, kid, aren’t you scared!” was heard, among other ridiculous phrases, uttered in a robotic, honestly less-than-scary voice, all over the room. It was both hilarious and exciting.
Again, recess, and then a costume parade, ruined our robotic fun:)
The takeaway lesson for me was the creation of a narrative, giving coding a storyline, helped me present the tasks in a way that gave meaning and purpose. The plot of Monsters Inc provided the jolt of electricity that animated the previously lifeless lesson. What have you used to give life to your lessons?