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!





Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning Online Course

Coursera is offering the Exploratorium’s great Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning online course. It starts June 27.

I did this two years ago and it was without doubt one of the best professional learning experiences of the year. It offers global collaboration, hands-on learning and solid theory and insights from leading practitioners.

Most project parts can be sourced locally and the skills and knowledge gained are very useful if making and tinkering is to be a focus in your school or classroom.

Check it out at  –

Also check out the Tinkering Studio for an insight into some of the projects –

dare mighty things!

InspireInnovate 2016

InspireInnovate 2016 is on March 9 and 10 and offers a great opportunity for NSW Department of Education teachers to experience two days of contemporary best teaching practise examples shared through keynotes and workshops. I’m running a workshop on Makerspaces and how Mt Ousley is implementing a K-6 inclusive making environment. Come along and learn through tinkering and making in a fun yet challenging environment!

Register here  –

Make2Learn – Adventures in Makerspaces

This semester we’ve been fitting out an old lab into a K-6 makerspace. For now, we have a dedicated room for children to explore, design, create, make mistakes and reflect, while in effect they learn through play. Kids can make a mess and ideate in a room designed to grow ideas and resilience.

Outcomes wise (and see my previous post for the rational), making meets a range of syllabus outcomes, especially in terms of Working Scientifically through the design process and Working Mathematically aspects of communication, logical thinking and reasoning. Student reflection (English) and a growth mindset that develops resilience are also school priorities.

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After consulting with staff, the room has been fitted out with a range of starter equipment including –

Various electronic circuits and kits


Lots of LEGO bricks, building pieces and characters

LEGO simple machines sets


Boxes of plasticine, paddle pop sticks, match sticks, felt and cardboard

Parrot mini-drones

Sphero robots

LEGO NXT and EV3 robotics

Littlebits electronics

Cubelets robots

Digital microscopes

And before you ask a 3D printer? – No (not yet convinced!)

As K-6 classes identify what suits both students and teachers we will top up kits as needed. Initially we have had great success with Sphero and Parrot mini-drone coding through Tickle app. We don’t want the kids just driving and flying the drones (though it is an introduction) we want students taking on challenge problems using coordinates, angles, distance and time. Logical programming apps such as Tickle enable this to occur.

From the high tech of drones to low tech, students are planning, making, testing and improving their designs. Marble runs with cardboard rolls and paddle pop sticks and simply creating plasticine modelled landscapes and objects are still a favourite.

Interestingly and pleasingly, making and tinkering is already moving into classrooms with children and teachers using both high tech (Littlebits, Sphero etc) and low tech (plasticine, cardboard).

As making becomes embedded in the contemporary teaching and learning cycle I’m sure we will see more making and tinkering in rooms, and it will become a norm rather than the exciting and somewhat ‘new’ type of learning often thrown into the now well out of date 21st Century learning myth.

Always learning.

K-6 Making and Tinkering (+ NSW syllabus links)

 because making is fun….

Tinkering and making, or Tinkertime as the kids term it, has been the learning activity of choice in my stage two class for the past year or so. After seeing a range of makerspaces and hands-on learning environments on my Churchill fellowship last year I was keen to introduce tinkering into my classroom.

Learning through play is the term used by Chris Rogers from TUFTS CEEO when talking about LEGO bricks and robotics as tools for classroom learning. Tinkering is also about learning though play and is inclusive of creative, challenging, reflective and shared learning experiences.

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Tinkertime and making has proven a very successful way to have all students engaged in hands-on design and make activities.

There are demonstrable milestones and outcomes programmed against the NSW Science K-10 syllabus and the Working Technologically strand. Importantly, when combined with aspects of the Mathematics K-10 syllabus covering Working Mathematically and English K-10 via student reflection, tinkering offers comprehensive cross key learning area differentiated learning. The K-6 NSW outcomes that may be applicable are shown below.


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At the same time I regularly check-in with students to ensure that they are effectively reflecting on the design and make process. I have them verbally identify their successes but also challenges.

I always ask, ‘What could be improved?’ and ‘How sweaty is your brain?’, a question that encourages students to reflect on the mental effort and thinking that is taking place.

Frustration, failure and persistence are traits and experiences that students need a self-awareness and understanding of. Too often student mindsets don’t allow for failure and I’ve found that tinkering greatly develops resilience in students. Failure and mistakes are what tinkering is all about and giving up on a task is not an option.

Entry level tinkering

A few examples of successful activities and that also use a minimum of resources are outlined below.

The scribbling machine.

These simple yet effective machines are made with a cup, 3-5 felt tip markers and a small DC motor and battery with plasticine or similar to act as a balance. Students are set the challenge of designing a machine that scribbles across a page leaving a colourful and creative design or pattern. The trick is to get the motor out of balance so that the machine is vibrating across the paper. Adjusting the motor position and adding material to ensure that the shaft is out of balance are essential to success.





The marble run.

Marble runs have a been a wonderful surprise, this year. They are surprisingly simple, yet can offer degrees of complexity and opportunity that I had never considered. Using just paddle pop sticks and plasticine my class have had hours of challenging fun designing and testing courses with set criteria such as the run must take 9 seconds from start to finish, or, it must include 14 sticks or 3 acute angle and 4 obtuse angle drops. The criteria are endless!


What else? Well LEGO brick constructions, deconstructing broken mechanical items and toys, robotics in its many forms including littleBits, cubelets and NXT/EV3 robotics, paper and sewn circuits, coding and programming are all options during Tinkertime!


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There are many resources now available on the web and I recommend Stager’s Invent to Learn text and website and the Exploratoriums Tinkering site for activity guides and their wonderful Coursera Tinkering course.

With the increasing focus on making STEM interesting, valid and valued within the K-6 curriculum, tinkering and making have rightfully bright futures in the contemporary teaching and learning environment.