Re-engage Children in Learning With Sphero BOLT

Products Reviews Robotics Toys

As schools across the nation and even the world have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning has been the prevalent means of education, there has been a concern over learning loss for these students. However, there has also been an engagement epidemic as students have only interacted with a screen rather than experience authentic hands-on learning and exploration. While students have been using technology as a tool for their learning, they have not really been learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), which can really help support all other academic subjects because it offers authentic learning experiences that engage students in the learning process. The Sphero BOLT is a product that can help reengage children in learning whether at home or in the classroom.

What Is Sphero BOLT?

Sphero is known for its spherical robots that can be programmed to roll around and perform different functions. Sphero BOLT takes their robots to a new level with more sensors and IR communication as well as an 8×8 LED matrix. Sphero BOLT sells for $149.99 and can be purchased directly from Sphero as well from Amazon and other retailers. It is appropriate for those 8 years and up.

What’s in the Box?

The Sphero BOLT includes the following items:

  • 1 Sphero BOLT robot ball
  • 1 Inductive charging base with USB charging cable
  • 360-degree protractor with heading, directions, and clock
  • Sphero sticker sheet
  • Quick start guide
Sphero BOLT contents
Everything you need to get started is included in the box. Image by Michael Knight.

How to Use Sphero BOLT

Sphero BOLT is essentially a small robot inside a spherical shell. The softball-sized sphere is fully enclosed and waterproof. It is charged through induction by placing on its charging base, which can be plugged into a USB power source. This little robot is not just a remote control toy. It actually contains a gyroscope, motor encoders, as well as  accelerometer, magnetometer, and ambient light sensors. It also communicates via Bluetooth and infrared. The built-in battery provides four hours or more of use on a single charge.

In order to interact with Sphero BOLT, the Sphero Play app will need to be downloaded onto an iOS, Android, or Amazon Fire OS compatible device. Once installed, the app easily connects to the Sphero BOLT. Within the app, you can adjust the color of the robot’s LED lights and brightness as well as its maximum speed. There are eight different drive modes from which you can choose to make the Sphero BOLT move around. In addition, there are also currently three games on the app in which you use the Sphero Mini Golf as the controller.

lessons on app
The SpheroEDU app offers a variety of lessons that teach coding. Image by Michael Knight.

While playing games with the Sphero Play app is fun, Sphero BOLT is also compatible with the Sphero Edu app for iOS, Android, Amazon Fire OS, macOS, Windows, and Chrome OS. The nice thing is that this app works with Chromebooks that many students and schools currently use. Here is where the Sphero BOLT really shines and teaches STEM. The app has several different activities to teach coding. It also features several already created programs that users can try out. There are three ways to program the Sphero BOLT in the app. In Draw, you literally draw the path you want the robot to move. The color you choose for the line is the color the LEDs will light up. This is great for younger children. Blocks use blocks of code that users stack together to create a program. This is great for learning coding as well as for quickly trying out different tasks. The different types of functions are color-coded to make it easier to understand what the blocks do. For example, movement blocks are light blue, lights are a shade of green, sounds are maroon, and so forth. These are very familiar to those who have used, Scratch, micro:bits, or other block codes. BOLT also has its own unique blocks, such as those that code what will appear on the LED display. Finally, you can program with text code using JavaScript. If you don’t know how to program using any of these three options, no problem. As mentioned, the app provides lessons and activities complete with videos to help get you going.

sample program
This code using Blocks includes a variable, a loop, math functions, and even causes images to appear on the LED display. Image by Michael Knight.

If you have a second Sphero BOLT or a Sphero RVR, which I reviewed last year, you can use the IR feature to communicate between robots. The Sphero EDU app has lessons that teach you how to do this. For example, you can code a BOLT to follow an RVR. Another lesson helps demonstrate how diseases can spread from person to person. One BOLT is coded to have the “virus.” It then sends out a code that “infects” other BOLTs which then, in turn, spread the disease to other BOLTs. 

Re-engaging and Motivating Learners

Schools around the country are at various stages of returning to normal. Some are still at full distance learning. Others are back to in-person learning with all students on campus and attending for a full day. Many are using a hybrid model where only a percentage of students are on campus at any one time. Some school districts are considering using summer school to make up for learning loss. Depending on vaccination rates and local conditions, not all schools may be returning to normal operations come the fall. Therefore, parents and teachers need to start preparing now to help re-engage and motivate students. Here are some useful tips that Sphero passed on to me:

  • Make lessons exciting & unexpected: adding surprise elements breaks up a lesson’s monotony, like a programmable robot!
  • Use the 10-2-2 strategy: spend ten minutes delivering a lesson, give students two minutes to process it as a group, and then two additional minutes to process information individually.
  • Break down interactive barriers: incorporate interactive tools and closed captioning when teaching online.
  • Promote collaboration: develops higher-level thinking, leadership, oral communication, and self-management skills. These will also help students connect with their classmates.
device and BOLT
Adding a physical component to online or screen learning really helps increase engagement and exploration. Image by Michael Knight.

Luckily, the high school where I teach has returned to full-time, in-person learning. When given lessons where they must explore and learn through trial and error, my students are becoming so engaged that they are going above and beyond the lesson and actually choosing what they want to learn on their own. They have missed the collaboration with other students and the opportunity to apply what they have learned. However, students who do not have the chance to attend school in person can still be provided engaging and motivating learning experiences. STEM is a great way to do this.

Why You Should Get Sphero BOLT

During the pandemic, education has lacked a hands-on aspect. Teachers have done a wonderful job with what they have been given. However, while my children were still in distance learning or during their “at home” days during hybrid, they were mostly on a Chromebook doing all of their work. Sphero BOLT is a great way to get them away from virtual learning and doing something in the real world rather than the virtual. It is also a great way to get started at home with learning robotics and coding. The fun and engaging games using the Sphero Play app make controlling a robot a lot of fun. Once you have tried out the games and drive modes in the Sphero Play app, moving onto the Sphero Edu app is a natural progression. Users already have an understanding of how the Sphero BOLT works and can begin doing some block coding and even later some text coding. The app lets you access all the tutorials for all types of coding. 

inside the BOLT
The clear shell lets you see the components. Two of the four IR emitters and sensors are visible and labeled. Image by Michael Knight.

As a high school teacher, I have used several different Sphero products in my classroom. Not only have I used them in my computer science classes, but also in my science classes with students with disabilities. I recently had some of my students try out the Sphero BOLT. We started out by driving the BOLT around the room and changing the color of the LED display. Soon they were using the Sphero Edu app to do some block coding to see if they could program the Sphero BOLT to maneuver around the room to get from one point in the room to the other side while avoiding tables and chairs. This app is where users really begin learning STEM skills. One of the features of the Sphero Edu app is the sensor data feature. While a program is running as well as in the end, the user can view graphs of data from all of the sensors and then even export it. These include distance, velocity, acceleration, and more. This information turns playing with a BOLT into a science lesson. 

As a teacher and a parent, I have seen how online and distance learning can affect students. They are not as engaged as in a physical classroom where “hands-on” exploration can take place. Having physical devices with which students can interact can help increase engagement and authentic learning. BOLT’s clear shell lets you see all of the components inside so users can learn how it works. I am very impressed with the Sphero BOLT. The many different sensors provide greater programming experiences since they allow for a variety of inputs as compared to most robots where users primarily only code for outputs. As a result of distance learning, most students now have access to an electronic device such as a Chromebook. The fact that you can use the SpheroEDU app on a Chromebook makes BOLT even more accessible to students. 

If you want to provide an engaging and fun way to further learning at home or in the classroom for your children or students which allows them to learn, explore, and then apply concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math, the Sphero BOLT is a great way to get children having fun interacting with technology while learning 21st-century skills they can use now as well as later in life. 

Disclosure: GeekDad received a sample of this item for review purposes.

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