How my Students became the Teacher at the Sphero Robotics Mission
The school year was coming to an end and like all teachers, I was searching for end-of-the-year enrichment activities that will keep my students engaged and provide valuable learning experiences. So, I turned to my favorite social media platform and one of the best sources for professional development, Twitter! And there it was, a tweet from Sphero that read, “Register now through April 12 for our first-ever robotics mission!” This information could not have come at a better time. I sponsored a few coding and robotics clubs for K-5, so this competition aligned well with my experience.
As the K-5 STEM lab teacher for Harmony Leland Elementary School in Mableton, Georgia, I regularly integrate Sphero robotics into the Science Georgia Standards of Excellence. Therefore, my students were very familiar with the basic coding of BOLT. However, would they be ready for a national coding and robotics competition that will involve more rigorous coding skills? There was only one way to find out. I registered for the competition, but then contemplated whether my elementary students would be ready or able to compete on such a level. After about two weeks of pondering my decision to follow through on the registration, I thought, why not? I have always held my students to a high standard and expected them to rise to the occasion and this competition should not be different. So, after registering for the Sphero Robotics Mission, I had to assemble my coding and robotics squad. I announced to all 4th and 5th graders that I was looking for five dedicated astronauts who would compete in the first-ever Sphero Robotics Mission competition in honor of Apollo 11. Additionally, they will compete for a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Houston Space Center where the final round of the competition would take place, and the winners would receive a brand new Sphero RVR, which was not yet released to the public! This announcement was made on April 23rd, so by the time I decided to enter my students in this competition, we only had approximately three and a half weeks before the last day of school to complete the mission.
Eventually, I ended up with a team of some very ambitious fourth-graders who demonstrated grit and determination! The Sphero Robotics Mission tasks were rigorous, and my team really had to dig deep and utilize their critical thinking skills, computational skills, problem-solving skills, and creativity. Over the next few weeks, my dedicated team worked like mad scientists in the mornings from 7:15 a.m. to 7:55 a.m. and after school, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. At times they didn’t want to go home and kept me hostage in my STEM lab until they completed a task. Hence the team’s name, the Lunar Lunatics! If I had held practice on the weekends, I’m absolutely sure the Lunar Lunatics would have shown up.
What I really loved about the Sphero Robotics Mission was the fact that it engaged my team in the interdisciplinary teaching of STEAM with real-world applications. Students were required to take on career roles that were pertinent to the Apollo 11 Mission such as Commander, Command Module Pilot, Lunar Module Pilot, Creative Director, and Research Scientist. The mission also included constructing and designing the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, conducting research on the Apollo 11 Mission, a written exam, creating a video that recorded BOLT executing the codes, a report of the overall Sphero Robotics Mission, a photo of our sensor data and the codes and finally, 12 coding challenges that lead “Neil Armstrong” (BOLT 1) on a mission on the Moon. The challenges included “Neil Armstrong” rolling out of the Lunar Module, avoiding moon craters, planting the American Flag, collecting Moon samples, deploying the Laser Ranging Retroreflector (LRR), and reporting data to “Buzz Aldrin” (BOLT 2). These coding challenges involved my 4th-grade team in higher-order thinking skills as they learned about variables, infrared sensors, coordinates, creating functions and using operators. To be honest, by the end of this mission, The Lunar Lunatics knew a whole lot more about coding BOLT than I did. My role as the Mission Manager was truly a facilitator because all I can say when they encountered a problem was, “Use the engineering design process to figure it out.” What I really wanted to say was, “I don’t have a clue!” The roles changed, my team became the experts and I became the pupil. How awesome was that!
Each member of the Lunar Lunatics contributed to the success of the team, which resulted in an all-expenses-paid, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Space Center Houston to compete in the final competition against two middle school teams! We were assigned to a friendly Sphero representative, Layne Rainey, who greeted us at the airport and transported us from the hotel to the competition site each day. The itinerary included a full tour of the Space Center and the final competition, which the team loved. The team competed in four 45 minutes challenge rotations named Moon Sample Collection, Obstacle avoidance, Sensing the Environment and RVR Martian Round-Up. The judges included engineers and a former astronaut. In the end, I was extremely proud of my team. Even though the Lunar Lunatics were the youngest competitors, they were poised, demonstrated solidarity with their teamwork, kept their composure despite encountering obstacles along the way and proved that students from Title I schools can compete with the best of them regardless of their socio-economic disparities. We did not win the overall competition, but we did end up winning the Most Creative Codes category and walked away with a finalist trophy and Specdrums!
Addressing the need for greater diversity in computer science is a critical issue and coincidently the finalists of the Sphero Robotics Mission addressed this need. One of the teams was an all-girls team and my diverse team represented the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Women and minorities have historically been underrepresented in computer science. Not every student who engages in computer science will become a computer scientist. Nevertheless, the skills gained from computer science such as computational thinking and problem-solving is applicable to any job. Thank you, Sphero, for doing your part in promoting computer science for all, allowing students to make real-world connections through coding and robotics and being the impetus for inspiring students to pursue STEM careers.