Our programming club has been progressing steadily through the lessons on Code.org. We enrolled our students in Course 1, which is appropriate for students who have basic reading skills and no prior coding experience. In this first course, students have been introduced to computational thinking as they work their way logically through problems and try to solve challenges. Students have also learned about looping through a series of fun activities like Getting Loopy and dancing games.

As students are beginning to have a deeper understanding of computer science and programming, we wanted to bring in some other science and robotics elements into our programming club. Enter our Spheros! Sphero is a robotic ball that students program using an app. They can write a basic program that simply makes their Sphero roll a direction or change color, or students can write a very complex program that will allow the Sphero to navigate a maze. You can see Sphero in action in this video.

We started off pretty basic because we wanted our second and third graders to feel successful and excited about using the Spheros. The first app we used was the basic Sphero app for the iPad. Through this app, students can change the color of the Sphero, change the speed of the Sphero, and navigate it using a simple joystick . IMG_4785IMG_4783

We had students work in partners because we find pairing always helps kids work better, are more creative, and can help each other with problem solving. Pair programming is a popular model with big tech companies you may have heard of – like Google.

Once kids had a basic understanding of how to navigate the Sphero, how adjusting the speed affected the control they had, and how to “calibrate” the Sphero so it understood what direction you meant when you pushed the joystick forward, we moved on a to more robust app.Sphero is somewhat similar to a toy car in that you are controlling the movements of the ball, but it’s much more challenging because students have to write the program to make their Sphero act in a particular way. We used the SPRK Lighting Labs app which uses drag-and-drop blocks, just like students are used to with Code.org. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.55.08 AM.png

Mr. Stalter walked the students through the basic commands – Roll, set heading, change color – and then we wrote a program. Each student got to choose either a color, or how long the ball would roll and in what direction. That was a challenging part for our students was figuring out the direction of the roll. It’s not a simple forward, left, right, back, but rather measured in degrees based on a circle. So we had to figure out what direction rolling 180 degrees was and then we stuck to basic degrees – 360, 180, and 90.

This was a really fun activity and kids loved being able to write a program and see it actually “happen” in front of them. One of the students mentioned how long it took to write a program to get the Sphero from one side of the room to the other, turn, and knock over a cup. We talked about how long it must take – and how many people – to write a computer program for a video game. I love that kids are  making real world connections and getting excited by the opportunity to create something of their own. It’s so incredible!

Your Turn: How have you used Spheros or other robots with your students?


Building a Foundation

Our second and third grade students at Fairview Elementary’s Programming Club are having a blast learning more about computer programming. We have been using the curriculum from Code.org’s 20 Hour Courses. As most of our students are at or below grade level with reading (and they are just little guys – 7 or 8 years old), our students are working through the concepts in Course 1. Course 1 uses fun characters like bees, zombies, and Angry Birds to teach students the basics of looping, events, conditionals, and other computer science concepts. Along with those online components, there are some “unplugged” activities where students get off the computer and interact with some materials hands on.

Last week, we wanted to remind students of the importance of persistence. This is obviously an important skill students should practice in all challenging tasks and it’s often difficult to teach it. It’s especially crucial in an area like computer science, where it is often the figuring out, changing a couple of things, testing and trying again, before you finally reach success. It can be easy to give up, which is why we must create tasks that are appealing enough for students to want to figure it out, but challenging enough that they learn how to work through those areas of discomfort. That’s why I love the curriculum from Code.org; it is engaging and cyclical.

For our unplugged lesson, students were given a set of gumdrops, some toothpicks, and a small 6 oz. cup. Their goal was to create a structure that was at least as tall as the cup and would hold the weight of a book (a regular-sized novel) for 10 seconds. They could only use the materials provided. IMG_4466

Before we gave the students their materials, we asked them to spend some time and individually draw a model of their design. Then, each person shared their design idea with their group members. Lastly, the group decided on the best design together.


Then, students were ready to build!


Some groups were successful on their very first try. Others had to continue to problem-solve and come up with alternative designs.


Happy and successful foundation builders!



First (and second) try was a failure!


It’s working!

We gave the students about 20 minutes for this lesson – from individual design time to group building and testing. Once the time was up (and sticky hands washed), we debriefed. Students shared what was challenging about the project. This included things like needing more materials or not being able to communicate effectively with their group. Another challenge was coming up with a different design once their first design didn’t work. Students were reluctant to change too much of their original design rather than mimic what other groups were doing with success.

Some things students enjoyed was testing out different configurations – if they made their structure taller would it hold a book? If they made it wider, could it hold a heavier book?

This was a fun unplugged activity that could easily be implemented in any classroom. It would be a great icebreaker activity at the beginning of a school year or semester. Most of the schools I support are STEM and STEAM schools; this would be fun for a parent night. You could use straws and marshmallows, too.

Your turn! What team building activities do you do to teach the importance of persistence? 

Programming Club

“Are we going to get to build robots and design video games?”

“I think this club is going to be so much fun!”

“Wow! This is so cool!”

“I did it!”

My second and third grade students were so excited to start Programming Club yesterday, and honestly, their teacher (me!) was too! I love more than anything seeing the excitement in students when they are learning new things and trying something novel. It is amazing to watch them try to figure it out and then when they do, that moment of celebration.

Yesterday began our first official meeting of Programming Club. I am co-chairing the group with the Focus Teacher at Fairview STEM Elementary, Mr. Stalter, and we are so excited to get started. The club is open to 2nd and 3rd grade students and we will meet once a week throughout the school year. We are using the free curriculum from Code.org for our club, but will also be implementing some lessons from SPRK Education to program our Sphero.

We started our session talking about what programming is and what computer programmers do. Students had a lot of really good ideas about what types of things people in the computer science industry do. Then we talked about whether we thought computers and iPads were really smart. Most students said yes; look at all the things they can do! That led us into a discussion about how computers don’t know what to do until someone tells it what to do. I love that we can make connections between following directions at school and a computer following directions!

Then, students programmed each of the teachers using the tile squares on the floor to give us directions to get from one corner of the room to the Promethean board. IMG_4054It was really helpful for students to see how they had to give me explicit directions – including which direction to turn – before moving in another direction. Students then had some time to practice on their own using the Unplugged activity called “Happy Maps.

In Happy Maps, the objective is to program the Flurb to get to the fruit. Using arrows, students work in partners to try to figure out which direction will get the Flurb to the fruit in the shortest number of steps. It was a bit of a challenge for some students to choose the shortest path. I think maybe they just wanted to glue all their arrows down! But, Mr. Stalter compared the steps to trying to win a race. If you need 1 step to get to the finish line and the other person takes 3 steps, who will win? That helped them to understand why they should try to find the shortest distance.

IMG_4052We finished up with an Assessment on Code.org where students answered questions about which way to turn in order to get their Flurb to a pot of gold. One of the things I LOVE about Code.org is the Teacher Dashboard. You can set up all your students in a class and assign which course you want them to be working in. Then, you can track their progress in those courses, including areas where they may have “passed” a level, but used more blocks than necessary. This shows that students are understanding the main concepts, but are still having struggles with something like looping or conditionals. Code.org using block programming, where students drag and drop blocks onto the work space and they can watch their code in action as their character moves through a puzzle. There is an option to show code, which is great for older learners as you begin to make the transition between block programming and programming language. When you create your class on the Teacher Dashboard, you also have a vareity of options for login. We created a picture as their password, rather than an actual word the students had to type. I love that it’s so scaffolded for different age and skill levels.

We had a blast and are really excited for this school year! IMG_4053

Are you interested in learning more about Code.org? You can find a FREE workshop to attend where you will get training, curriculum guide, swag bags, resources, and more. If you’re local to the Lansing, MI area, sign up for my workshop HERE.