This week, the Force Friday event saw the release of the first wave of toys related to the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. For me and many others, this was all about one thing though -
the release of the app controlled BB-8 droid from Sphero.
After seeing this R2-descendent hurtle across the screen in the first teaser trailer for the film, I couldn't help but think that he looked a lot like a Sphero with a head. I was still nonetheless quite surprised to learn that Sphero were actually hired by the Star Wars production team to create the real BB-8 for the film.
Then I spotted the not-so-subtle teaser on the Sphero website:
Lucky for me, I managed to find one in a shop here in Dubai on the day of release - despite numerous local websites bemoaning the fact that UAE fans would have to wait or order internationally!
So is it any good?
Well of course it is - Sphero know what they're doing or they wouldn't have been involved in the film itself. BB-8 is at heart a traditional Sphero after all, but with some awesome additional touches. These include:
- an autonomous Patrol mode, with the droid mapping out the space around him to avoid repeated collisions with objects. - the ability to use a range of voice commands to control him. - a message recording feature that uses AR to view the recordings as a holographic projection from BB-8 (think Leia's message from R2D2 in the original movie)
I was originally going to just write this piece as a little Spotlight hut the more I played around with BB-8 last night, the more ideas for using him in an educational setting I kept coming up with. As such here are my Top Ten tips for awakening the force in your classroom:
MAY THE CHARGE BE WITH YOU You can get an hour's worth of activity out of BB-8 when fully charged so make sure that you have him topped up before use in a lesson. Handily, the charge station doubles as a rather awesome display stand so why not build a small display around him that encourages interaction even when he is not operational.
One great idea for a line of questioning would be to focus on the way that the robot is charged (look kids - no wires...),
MAY THE MAGNETIC FORCE BE WITH YOU Obviously the main physical difference between BB-8 and a regular Sphero is the head piece that attaches via a magnet. The brilliant design makes sure that the head always stays on top when the ball itself is rolling though. Thus if you are studying magnetism with your students, this could form the basis of a great extension project for more able students - investigating how this is possible when the ball is turning.
MAY THE FRICTION BE WITH YOU Still on a science tip, how about using BB-8 as a part of a study of friction on different surfaces. I'm sure many of you will have conducted the classic ramp experiment using toy cars before. BB-8 could replace the cars and the scenario could be set that he is exiting a ship and needs to escape quickly so which material should be used on the exit ramp. As with Sphero, BB-8 has a range of pre-set commands that can be used to control a specific movement or reaction, including a straight line movement which would be perfect for this.
MAY THE SALES BE WITH YOU Set to be the number one selling toy this Christmas, you could use the BB-8 as a prompt for some persuasive writing. How would students market the toy? What key features do they see as USPs? Can they generate a slogan or jingle for him? This project could be presented as a poster, radio ad or even a full TV ad using iMovie.
The example below was made with Phoster.
MAY THE CREATIVITY BE WITH YOU Bursting with character, BB-8 has great potential for inspiring some descriptive writing and pumping up engagement levels in the process. Students could describe how he looks or moves using figurative language then develop this into a larger narrative piece. Perhaps they come across him at a meteor site or in an attic? How could they learn to communicate with him (I bet C3P0 understands him!) or help him accomplish a goal? What problem that the main character faces could little BB-8 help with in some way?
MAY THE INSTRUCTIONS BE WITH YOU Another type of writing that can easily be developed around any robot or drone is instructional writing. Have students write a how to guide, complete with ordered steps that set out how to control BB-8. This can even then be used to link in with programming via the concept of algorithms being a sequence of steps to achieve a goal.
MAY THE HOLOGRAM BE WITH YOU The hologram message feature is really cool but at first I couldn't think of a way to incorporate it in a lesson. Then it hit me - the app records and stores multiple messages so a series of small instructions or challenges could be recorded and students could access them in order as they progress through a lesson using the robot. As such a small group could be left with BB-8 whilst you focus on other students who are perhaps completing a different task (I'm assuming here that most people will only have on of these special Spheros whereas some schools do have class sets of the regular ones.)
MAY THE MAP BE WITH YOU BB-8 cannot yet be directly programmed and as such you can't use it to navigate a maze the way you might with a Sphero and the Tickle app. When switched to Patrol Mode though, the BB-8 app displays various screens of feedback. These include a simple mapping system wherein he learns the position of various obstacles and then is able to avoid them as he continues to navigate a space. There's scope for incorporating this into geography/maths work and you can even elect to switch to metric units if preferred. Perhaps you use the data collected in terms of his distance travelled in a set time limit or the number of collisions he makes (appearing comically as Stormtrooper icons on the display.)
Another idea I'm playing around with is having him enter a set space that is obscured by the controller and having them then use his feedback to work out where various objects have been placed. I'm thinking that some sort of Lego border around a Beebot style mat could be effective here. Watch this space...
MAY THE MOTOR SKILLS BE WITH YOU
As with the original Sphero, the direct control system is actually a great way for younger students to develop both hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills as they attempt to guide the robot safely around a space. My 3 year old daughter was transfixed by the little droid and at first kept knocking his head off by slamming into walls. This lead to her applying a gentler touch (with a little help) as she began to control him with a little more precision.
MAY THE REWARD BE WITH YOU At the end of the day, BB-8 is pretty much guaranteed to be the coolest thing you have in your classroom. Make the most of this by using him as a part of your classroom management. Five minutes of golden time, free playing with the robot from Star Wars? I know that when I was at school, an offer like that would've had me working through my break times!