When I transitioned from classroom teacher to library media specialist a few years back, one of the first things I did was to lobby for the creation of a makerspace. With the enthusiastic (and much appreciated!) support of my administration, I worked with the technology department to research and purchase equipment that students could use for a variety of curricular and/or extracurricular projects. We heralded its arrival with announcements, blog posts, and posters. And, for the most part, students were excited and interested in exploring the newly-developed space. Unfortunately, the realities of their daily class and athletics schedules made it very difficult for them to find extended time during the school day to spend in the makerspace. It was with this challenge in mind that I introduced a series of monthly MakerSpace Evening Events.
Last month’s event was centered on the Global Cardboard Challenge, which is organized by the Imagination Foundation. We collected an outrageous amount of cardboard from around campus and then spent an evening creating amazing stuff like animals, games, suits of armor, wallets, and eyewear. It was a wonderful way to kick off this new series of community events.
This month’s event focused on Robotics, and the goal was to provide opportunities for learning basic programming with Spheros and the MacroLab iPad app, as well as a designated station for LEGO robotics.
In trying to plan for this event, I reached out to some amazing people who are far more knowledgable and experienced with robots and asked them for advice and suggestions. Rather than try to micromanage the instruction, I decided to create a series of Learning Stations throughout the library. Students would be encouraged to choose a station that was interesting to them, and stay for as long as they remained engaged. There would be no whistle or bell to compel them to transition to other stations. An iPad was placed at each Station for students to demonstrate their thinking, problem solving, and showcase their work!
In planning for the stations, I spent time reading through Sphero’s SPRK Lesson Plans and picking ones that I thought would work well for our age group and objectives. We decided on Lessons 1–3, so I downloaded the lessons, made sufficient copies, and each became a separate Learning Station (#1: Speed, Time & Distance; #2: Geometry; #3: Median & Mode).
I wanted to keep some game options available for students who were ready to use their programming knowledge in a different arena. Learning Station #4 was called Sphero Bocce. Using masking tape, I created a large octagon on the corridor floor and also a small “ball” that would be used as the Pallino. Students would place their Spheros outside the perimeter of the shape, and then, using the Draw&Drive app, they would compete to see whose Sphero could get closest to the Pallino.
Station #5 was called MazeRunner, and students would be encouraged to use stacks of books, LEGOs, and masking tape to create a maze through which their Sphero would maneuver.
Finally, I quietly set aside a small room of LEGO robotics for students who may want to experiment. It was not the focus of the evening, but it seemed a good idea to have a Plan B in case we had more students than Spheros, or for students who may wanted a different robotics experience.
Given that we had 5+ Learning Stations, it was important to have sufficient support staff to ensure a successful event for all of the participants. I was able to enlist the help of several faculty members and also some of our 9th grade library technology leaders. These folks helped with everything from reading comprehension of the SPRK lessons to connectivity issues with the iPads. They were absolutely essential, and, frankly, we could have used more of them.
When the time came to open the doors, we ran a quick huddle so that I could provide an overview of how the evening would be run. Students partnered up so that each group of two shared an iPad and a Sphero. They were then released into the wilds to explore and experiment.
Students love Spheros! They immediately got down to learning how to program their device and accomplish the Learning Station objectives. Being in pairs encouraged them to articulate their thinking and collaborate on problem solving strategies.
While many of them remained at single Stations for extended periods of time, several pairs moved quickly between them, searching for an activity that met their interest. Naturally, this led to the inevitability of students hacking the stations to make the challenges more interesting to them. Case in point: Learning Station #3 was all about median and mode, and the final challenge was for students to create a bowling alley with whiteboard markers as pins. This was engaging for a few minutes, but students quickly turned it into a fortress defense game, with a new objective: program your Sphero to navigate around the wall of defenders, enter through the gate, and take out the towers, each of which was worth a different number of points, depending on where they were located and whether or not they contained a warrior. This is obviously an upgrade!
In all, this event was a huge success! We ended up with roughly 20 students ranging from grades 4–9, and I feel confident stating that all of them had fun and learned something new in their time here. There will definitely be a second robotics event sometime soon, but there are a few things I’ll want to address first.
First, I’ll definitely want to have more support staff on hand. At one point, we had 20 students and 4 lead learners, which meant that none of us were really able to engage the participants in meaningful discussion, creative plan, or collaboration. As the evening progressed, more support arrived, but it will be important to have sufficient numbers from the start of the next event.
Second, we need to add more Spheros to our collection. Even with students partnered up, there were periods in the evening when the number of student pairs exceeded the number of Spheros, which required some creative thinking on our part to keep them engaged and productive. In addition, most of our Spheros needed to be recharged after about 1.5 hours, and that meant some down time that was not in the schedule.
With these small corrections added to the planning process, I am confident that our next robotics event will be even more successful.
Last night’s event was precisely the type of learning opportunity I’m working hard to bring to our school community. With the momentum gained by running two MakerSpace evenings so far this year, I am looking forward to developing more programs that focus on student choice, community building, and, well, fun!