This is a guest blog post by Richard Perry, English teacher at Sanford H. Calhoun H.S. in Merrick NY and Sphero Hero.
It is day five of distance learning for my 9th grade ELA classes and my students and I are bored. For me, the most enjoyable part of teaching is the classroom interactions that occur with my students. Guiding my students as they face challenges and seeing their joy when they succeed makes me enjoy my job. When our school closed and we moved learning to online at home, I started looking for a way to sustain cooperative interaction with my students during these times of responsible social distancing. I landed on remote coding.
How to Get Started
This project requires some basic materials that most people will already have at home:
- The Sphero Edu app (for both you and your students)
- Painter’s tape
- Tape measure
- Sphero Robot (any of the robots will work, I used the RVR)
- A phone or camera and a method to share videos with your students such as Google Classroom, Instagram or YouTube.
What to Expect
At the most basic level, this is a maze challenge. Construct a maze out of painter’s tape on the floor of any available space. The maze does not have to be very large or complex. The challenge is not the maze, but the remote aspect of the students programming the robot to complete the maze. It is akin to programming a robot that’s on another planet. You can see what the robot does, but you can’t control the robot in real time. For the students in my class, this is a challenge they faced and overcame during our period of social distancing.
The students will need several pieces of information in order to attempt the maze. First, a picture of the maze must be shared with the students. It is preferable to take several pictures of the maze, one overview photo and then several detailed photos that show the sections of the maze. Second, the students must have the exact measurements of the maze. Each section should be measured individually and shared with the students. Third, the students must be given the distance the Sphero will travel at half speed for one second. My Sphero traveled 43 inches in one second at half speed. Each robot will have a slightly different travel distance so don’t worry if you get slightly different results with your Sphero. Finally, it is time to reinforce the concept of social distancing. Inform the students that they may work cooperatively, but only through remote means such as Google Hangouts or Zoom. Any deviation from responsible social distancing results in automatic disqualification from the contest.
The students can now get to work. Using the data provided by the instructor the students can remotely program the Sphero. Once the program is completed, the students must use their Sphero Edu accounts to share the programs via e-mail with the instructor.
Communication is Key
An important part of this project is the instructor’s ability to convey the information back to the students visually. Upon submission of the program, the instructor will run the program and share the results with the students via video. A cell phone is a great way of filming the trials. The course should be brightly lit. When filming the students’ submissions, it is also best, but not required, to use a wide-angle lens. Stabilized video is also recommended as you follow the path of the Sphero.
The shared videos should include the data related to any failures of the students’ programs. The most common error among my students was the Sphero turning too early or late. Sharing the information enabled the students to revise their program and run another test. This process can be repeated until the students are successful, or the instructor decides to end the challenge. I gave my students two weeks to work on this challenge. On the final day of the project, I shared the names of the winners on each section of my Google Classroom.
The application of this project to an ELA class may not seem obvious. This project is the basis for a practice persuasive essay for their final exam. The essay will be based on empirical data from multiple sources of various genres. The students will take the data they used to solve the maze, and write persuasively about the best method of solving the problem that was presented to them through this challenge. By helping to harvest some of the data the students have become vested in the project. It will give them an emotional connection to the essay topic which will help them develop a convincing persuasive argument.
The Final Results
As the weeks progressed, social distancing with the Sphero was a great success and fulfilled all of the project’s intended purposes. The students were engaged with the material and worked cooperatively with each other while practicing responsible social distancing. Most important, the project was exciting for everyone involved. I enjoyed the project. It gave my students a diversion from the typical distance learning experience while bringing my classes out of isolation and creating, virtually, that feeling of class unity that has been missing for the past few weeks.
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