A short train ride outside New York City, New Jersey’s South Orange Middle School has a new inhabitant rolling around its classrooms. The diverse yet inclusive Title I public school of about 700 students has a small but influential population of little round robots called Spheros, thanks to librarian Elissa Malespina.
When her son got a Sphero as a present, Malespina immediately recognized its educational potential, and introduced Spheros to her class of multiply disabled students.
“It was amazing because these children were children that, because of their issues, can be hard to get engaged. They have some fine motor issues and stuff like that,” she says. “It really opened up a lot of things we can do with them.”
Malespina’s students have built mazes and played games. She has started a Sphero club at the school, and hopes to eventually teach coding with it. And her efforts are an example of — and an inspiration to — the latest push from Sphero’s manufacturer to bring the toy to schools, and unlock the educational potential that Malespina saw.
So Sphero is a toy. But it’s also a robot, albeit one with an atypical appearance, and its true power is that it’s programmable. Its maker, Orbotix, recognizes this, and is using that potency to drive education via a new program called SPRK — “Schools, Parents, Robots, Kids.” Programming can be challenging, and building a toy with an understandable interface — the Sphero app — is one way to make it accessible.
“When you think about robotics, it’s typically pretty intimidating, especially for kids,” says Ross Ingram, who launched the SPRK program. “Sphero’s just kind of a way to engage them with something they’ve never seen before.”
But experimenting with the toy at home has its limitations, and Orbotix noticed that parents and teachers, like Malespina, had started taking Spheros to school, and building curriculums around them.
“When we originally created Sphero, we wanted to create a fun connected toy,” says Ingram. “We didn’t have any thoughts about making it educational, or anything like that.”
But upon seeing what educators were doing, Ingram and the Orbotix crew decided to replicate the idea on a larger scale. They now offer discounted multi-Sphero packs for educators, and free tutorials and lesson plans from basic robot control to advanced programming challenges. It’s an opportunity to facilitate interests in programming, math, and science, while selling Spheros and engaging with the makers the company grew up with.
“Educators are looking for this,” says Ingram. “It solves that problem of, How do we reach young kids, how do we get them introduced to engineering and programming?”
Under the new program, teachers will have more resources to help build coursework. But that doesn’t mean they have to forgo experimentation.
“It’s something that I’m learning and making up as I go. It’s new technology, and sometimes it works perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m big into experimenting and trying it out,” says Malespina. “That’s how I see this whole Sphero thing. It’s an in-progress thing. That’s sort of what the maker movement is about anyway, getting people to try things … let’s experiment, let’s learn from them, and grow.”
All along, Orbotix has encouraged people to hack the Sphero, and now the company is introducing a contest that falls in that vein as well.
After a prototypical start in a garage, put together by two founders and programmed to respond to smartphone controls, the company behind Sphero is trying to tap the maker community — and contribute to it — through a contest aimed at makers. Starting during Maker Faire Bay Area, May 17 and 18, Orbotix is accepting plans for Sphero accessories, and the best design will win its creator $5,000 and a trip to the World Maker Faire in New York in September.