In the past year, my library has been invaded and transformed by robots. Where once there was quiet, the sound of excited collaboration fills the room. In the past, a few students would approach me, eager to work on coding. Now they arrive in droves. Why? Because robotic devices such as Ozobot, Dash & Dot, and Sphero make coding real, relevant, and fun. They inspire and empower even my youngest students to solve problems, work together, and push their limitations.
Now, there is a new member of the Sphero family: SPRK+. The app-controlled robotic sphere is designed to inspire children to engage with STEAM skills through creative play. Like the SPRK model before it (the acronym stands for schools, parents, robots, kids), the new SPRK+ ($130) is app driven and allows for a range of use from simply driving it with a remote control tool, to programming it to complete complex tasks and respond to environmental triggers. Like all Sphero products, the SPRK+ is a lot of fun right out of the box and will motivate students (and adults) to tap into their creative side.
Just add imagination
SPRK+ is equipped with an accelerometer and gyroscope, LED lights, programmable sensors, and a polycarbonate shell. The shell on both the SPRK+ and its charging base are clear, so the “guts” of the robot are visible. It comes with the charging base and USB cord, a roll of blue tape marked to measure in meters, and a circular protractor. The instructions included are minimal, consisting of one double-sided card with a handful of pictures.
The differences between SPRK and SPRK+ are small but mighty. The polycarbonate shell on the SPRK+ has an additional coating to make it scratch resistant. After days of driving it, rather forcefully, into furniture and walls, that coating seemed to hold up. It also performs well in water. Have no fear holding water races or powering a small boat with SPKR+, but it will disconnect easily if it sinks too deep. SPRK+ is the first Sphero to be marketed as a key component in maker projects. Since a Sphero is essentially a rolling engine, it has the potential to be a creative source of power and motion for maker projects such as cars and boats. The tougher exterior will help SPRK+ stand up to the wear and tear of maker projects that involve building frames around it, rolling through paint, and repeated contact with materials not specifically designed to work with Spheros. The addition of Sphero accessories, such as silicon covers or the “Chariot” harness, sold separately, will add longevity for SPRK+ devices.
Also new: SPRK+ is equipped with Bluetooth Smart, which enables a tap-to-connect feature within the Lightning Lab app. SPRK+ is automatically turned on and connected when the Lightning Lab app is opened; no need to tap the robot or search for a connection. This pairing process is consistently faster, easier, and more reliable than in previous models, which is great news for those looking to use SPRK+ in classrooms.
SPRK+ is controlled by the SPRK Lightning Lab app. At this time, Lighting Lab is the only Sphero app that connects with SPRK+ (but Lighting Lab works with all Sphero robots). Lightning Lab serves three major functions: controlling and programming the robot, completing assigned activities, and interacting with the SPRK community. Designed for classroom use, Lightning Lab makes it possible to join the community as either a student or an instructor. Instructors have all the capabilities that students do, as well as the power to create lessons and assign activities to their students.
Programs written within the Lightning Lab app are created with a drag-and-drop block language. The language is robust enough for seasoned coders to create complex programs, but also basic enough for new coders to understand. There are about a dozen sample programs in the Lightning Lab app, which can be copied and remixed. These programs provide good examples of what sensors and actions can be manipulated, and remixing them will help students understand each component. Give the “Jump” program a try. It utilizes the raw motor function to flip the Sphero around—but will definitely scare your cat!
SPRK: Schools, Parents, Robots, Kids
The real power of robotic devices like the SPRK+ is the way in which they motivate kids to think and learn through play. The payoff for mastering coding skills with a robot is tangible and immediate. Many schools, teachers, and librarians are already using Sphero products to generate excitement in STEAM skills and coding. I see the SPRK+ as an excellent addition to such programs. Its superior connectivity and durability make it a great fit for schools. While students of all ages will surely have fun with these robots, I feel that the kind of advanced coding, math, and engineering knowledge required to take the SPRK+ to its highest potential are really more suited to upper elementary and middle school curriculums.
One element that will help educators take their Sphero programs to the next level is the SPRK community. The changes in the Lightning Lab app and the SPRK+ represent a push to expand and bolster the SPRK community, connecting more educators and students to each other and their projects. Lightning Lab members can create and share activities and programs, and the new update adds more than 150 new activities into that mix. Coming updates to the news feed in the Lightning Lab app will highlight trending projects, comments, and member contributions. Sharing is a big part of being a maker, and the SPRK community is making it easier, and more enjoyable, to do just that.
SPRK+ is an excellent upgrade of the popular SPRK robot. The updates to both the Lightning Lab and the robot itself make it an even better fit for classrooms looking to make STEAM learning fun.
Sphero Goes Crystal Clear with SPRK, a New Version of the Programmable Robot | School Library Journal