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Robots in the classroom teach important lesson

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East Central Elementary third-grader Jerne Winston summed up the goal of students working with Spheros — spherical robots — with one question: “What should we fix?”

Problem solving and critical thinking were the main elements of the weeklong activity in teacher Heather Byington’s classroom, as learning introductory coding was blended into the fun and enjoyment of working with robots. Learning from mistakes and developing solutions in response is an essential component of STEAM — science, technology, engineering, the arts and math — programming in schools, she said.

The Spheros circulate across the system, as teachers schedule check-out weeks to bring them into their class. So these third-graders got their shot this week. Monday and Tuesday were focused on learning how to drive the robots, which students program with commands through an app on iPads.

For some Halloween fun, Byington put paper inside cardboard boxes and dropped paint on it. Students controlled the robots to roll through the paint and mix the colors, resulting in something like a technology-made Jackson Pollock painting.

Friday’s activity was centered on exhibiting control over the robots and making specific movements — travel in a square or triangle — rather than just driving them around, Byington said. Through the app, students control the direction, speed, duration of movement and color of the robots — they can also add sound effects. When students got their hands on the Spheros, after Byington gave a demonstration, the rolling robots didn’t exactly do what they had imagined — but that was the point.

Byington said they’re probably going to fail at some point, which students initially experienced. But before long they had developed solutions to what went wrong, from altering the angle of direction to slowing it down and dropping the seconds of travel. Partners ran up to Byington and pushed their iPad screens toward her, showing a map of the Spheros’ movement in a perfect square.

“They’re teaching me stuff,” she said. “Kids are really creative.”

The duo of George Loveless and Pascual Mendoza went beyond shapes and treated their Sphero as a police car. They sent the robot rolling forward and when it stopped, red lights were activated and a siren sounded before it traveled back to them.

“They do that themselves,” Byington said.

Students, besides saying they overwhelmingly loved the activity, touched on what Byington was trying to instill. 

“You have to have a lot of tries, a lot of experimenting,” Ansley Parker said.

“It’s a good way to learn,” said Winston. “I don’t think you should ever give up.”