Integrated design challenges and coding with Sphero and K’nex.

Learning through serious play…

I love the excitement that children express when faced with what, to an adult, might be considered a ‘ho-hum’ type of learning opportunity. It serves as a reminder to respect a child’s view of the world and the thought processes attached. The examples below exemplify this thinking and are fun and challenging engineering based challenges designed to enthuse and engage students.

These STEM based design learning tasks resonate with years 2-6 and utilise K’NEX pieces to design and make both a bridge and chariot that are tested using a Sphero robotic ball. These are both activities that any teacher can lead and they both offer entry points that enable success for all students.

I would also add that both of these activities are detailed on the Sphero SPRK Lightning Lab education website, accessible by a free educator account.

The Bridge

The bridge is another great design and make challenge. I always show Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster via Youtube to engage and hook the students into thinking about bridge design and engineering. The oohs and aahs alone are worth showing the footage.

The challenge is to span a distance via a bridge that Sphero can be driven or coded to cross. I like a span around 40cm as it is longer than a ruler and results in multiple connections and more complex thinking. K’NEX works well for this activity as do rulers and paddle pop sticks, albeit with more masking tape, Blutac or similar.

I’ve found that two or three iterations (number of designs) are often needed to deliver a structure that can support the Sphero and provide some edge guidance or rails. Be careful on smooth desks as Sphero can spin due to the lack of traction, some masking tape to rough up the surface is worthwhile.

To add to the challenge, students working in groups might only be allowed to ask the teacher (engineer) one design question or students could be given a $ budget and purchase materials from the teacher as would happen in real life. I also have students weigh their bridges and compare results. Leaning to balance weight versus strength and rigidity is an important learning point.


The Chariot

This is a fun and somewhat tricky challenge offering opportunities for multiple iterations and trials. The challenge is to build a chariot (or harness) that a programmed Sphero acting as horse can drag over a course. K’NEX is ideal due to the range of connection options. I’ve also used CDs as wheels and LEGO pieces as needed by students. Sphero can be programmed using SPRK or Tickle app to complete a course, or for a straight line race, I’d recommend the Sphero Draw and Drive app. The design of the chariot can be simple or complex and students often find the axle/wheel combination one of the more challenging aspects to master.

Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, reflection and resilience are evident in these tasks and strong connections to the maths syllabus and coding are embedded.

design make improve – learning through serious play!