Sphero: The rolling robot that's teaching autistic students coding, new social skills, and spelling

Sphero: The rolling robot that's teaching autistic students coding, new social skills, and spelling
Sphero: The rolling robot that's teaching autistic students coding, new social skills, and spelling

Connected toy manufacturer Sphero is getting ready to launch a new version of its titular connected toy and has a revamped companion app to go with it. Referred to as SPRK+, the upgraded robot ball is now scratch-proof, shock resistant, and watertight. More importantly, the improved version of the Lightning Lab companion app now includes over 150 new lessons and exercises to help teach kids coding fundamentals.  It also gives teachers and students the ability to share their Lightning Lab activities and programs with one another.

While Sphero may look and feel like a toy, under its cute plastic shell is a programmable mind designed to teach coding fundamentals. Through Lightning Lab, kids are able to learn coding skills (such as loops and if then else statements), which will then have an effect on Sphero's real world behaviour (changing colour, moving in different directions, or changing acceleration for example). 

One man who's pretty excited by the launch is Craig Smith, Deputy Principal of the Aspect Hunter School for Children with Autism in Newcastle. Smith has been kitting out students with the rolling robot since Sphero has been available in Australia to help develop their emotional and social intelligence.

"Our focus is very much on building up emotional and social intelligence of our kids," Smith told CyberShack. "They're a bunch of little engineers and hackers, but their emotional and social skills need a lot of work. We do the regular academic programs that all of the other schools do, but we have to think of innovative ways to keep kids engaged."

"Our kids are very visual a lot of what they process is based on what they see. We need hands on, concrete ways of helping them learning. When teachers are just talking at the class, or using auditory cues, our kids really struggle."

Over 130 students attend the Aspect Hunter School for Children with Autism, with ages ranging from four to sixteen. Smith says Sphero's been incorporated into the learning environment in a number of ways that cater to different age groups.

Younger students at the school cover Sphero with paint, and then use the app-driven controls to write out of their spelling words, or to paint and draw. Older kids get an introduction to coding, and dive in deeper as they make their way up through grades. Smith says the physical conduit can make abstract concepts easier to understand.

Outside of the classroom, Sphero has been used to facilitate sharing exercises, as well as team-based "sports". Smith says that his students' social and team-based skills aren't always their strongest aspects.

"We'd never have success with this if we said let's play a game of soccer or let's play a game of cricket. This would actually cause a lot of stress and anxiety".

Instead, the students use Sphero as their avatar when playing soccer or dodge-ball like games, and have to work together to score goals or eliminate a central player

With regards to the SPRK+, Smith is excited for a couple of reasons. The first of these is improved durability; his students regularly throw their devices in paint, drive them across concrete, and take them to the beach. Lightning Lab's expanded feature set is another development Smith is looking forward to; specifically, the fact teachers will able to share their lessons with one another.

"Anything that allows educators to talk to other educators about ways of using innovative technology like Sphero is a good thing," said Smith.

The revamped version of Lightning Lab is available for iOS and Android now, and is compatible with existing Sphero devices (including BB-8). Sphero SPRK+ will be available from Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi, and Myer from July, priced at AUD$199.95.

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