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Elementary and high school students build Maze Runner-like challenge for Sphero

By Suzanne Baker, Naperville Sun
September 27th, 2016

Collaboration pairs high school woodworking class and fourth-grade Sphero coders

sphero maze

Naper Elementary School students could be the envy of their peers when it comes to a labyrinth for testing their robotic skills.

With technical assistance from Naperville North High School, Naper fourth-graders will be rolling robotic Sphero balls through what one elementary student likened to the always-changing maze in “Maze Runner,” a literary reference that brought a smile to the face of Ryan Shambo, Naper’s learning commons director and lead teacher.

The collaboration between the two schools started after Shambo had trouble finding a maze to complement the school’s technology.

Like many local elementary schools, Naperville acquired the robotic balls to teach the basic concepts of computer coding.

Shambo said students need some type of maze to apply those skills, but a search of the internet revealed little for him to purchase. Most of the suggestions called on teachers to tape off a section of the floor or create mazes using blocks, textbooks or other classroom objects.

Shambo wanted a more permanent, wooden, three-dimensional maze that also was self-contained so students wouldn’t be chasing the robotic Sphero ball around a classroom.

He turned to the technology education department at Naperville North for guidance, and initial results far exceeded expectations.

A mock-up labyrinth was presented to Shambo and fourth-graders last week when the students toured the woodworking shop at the high school.

Josh Murawski, who teaches woodworking at the high school, proposed a maze with slots to hold removable walls so students can alter their mazes or create new ones.

“This is really amazing. I never thought of that,” Shambo said. “I can see other schools will want a maze like this, too.”

Murawski said the final design will be up to the students, who will decide how large and what other features they’d like to see in their maze, such as permanent structures or custom etchings.

During the tour, the fourth-graders watched how the grooves on the mock-up were cut using the school’s computer numerical control router.

Murawski explained how the same basic computer programming concepts high school students need tell the high-tech machine where to cut the wood will be used by the fourth-graders to code their Sphero robots.

The goal, Shambo said, will be for students to program the rolling balls by giving a series of two-dimensional commands — forward or backward and left or right.

Murawski said the big difference between coding for their robot ball and the computer-guided router is an up-and-down direction where the programmer tells the machine how deep to make the cut.

The high school teacher said as students are learning skills at younger ages, it forces junior high and high school teachers to adjust accordingly.

“We’re going to have to step up our curriculum and difficulty in our program,” said Murawski, who said he’s up for the challenge and the new possibilities it opens for students.

Naperville North freshman James Recendez, whose Woodworking 1 class met the same time as the elementary visit, watched fourth-grader Luke Mundt’s turn maneuvering the robotic ball briefly through the maze using an iPad as a joystick.

James didn’t recall playing with robots when he attended Naper Elementary, though he said he wished he’d had the chance.

Luke was looking forward to having a maze at his school. “I think it’s good so kids learn how to program and code,” he said.

Shambo said he also sees the collaboration between the two schools as a means of opening the door for creating a maze kit that schools throughout the area might use.

[image via Andreas Rabe/flickr]

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