Robotic Play Teaches Kids Math and Programming

Helping your kids decide what to do with their lives is scary. Guiding them in directions that will offer stability and security is daunting. So what if there were a toy designed to spur an interest in something that could lead to a pretty good career?

On August 30, 2013, Orbotix launched the latest version of the Sphero, a robotic ball that is designed not only for play, but also for teaching kids math and programming in a way that seems like fun and games.

Sphero is a robotic ball and gaming system that can be controlled by a touch, tilt or swing of smart device or tablet. It can travel up to seven feet per second and can be used as part of applications downloaded to a device to play games or to program the robot.

"One of my huge passions is education for this," said Adam Wilson, co-founder of Orbotix. "I was thinking about it, and I thought that if some kid someday grew up to be an engineer and the first thing he ever programmed was Sphero, that's pretty bad-ass."

What Wilson didn't know was that a week after launching the new Sphero, NPR would publish research by Georgetown economist, Andrew Carnevale, showing that eight of the top ten college degrees relative to median income are in Engineering and one is Mathematics and Computer Science.

Wilson and CEO Paul Berberian are dedicated to getting a program in schools and having teachers and professionals write a curriculum that students can use to increase math skills and get experience with programming.

"We have gone into 4th and 5th grade classes and taught them to program a square and then to program a pattern with Macrolab," Wilson said. "The next level up would be 8th graders. They would learn programming and actually doing loops. You can really loop in a lot of mathematics and other things without them knowing. You can teach them to program a square, and they already have learned angles and fractions and velocity. But you don't say it like that. You give them the challenge and if the ball only goes ¾ of the way there, the number that they have to figure out is the percentage, so they have to go back and kind of know some things."

"We have done an hour class at schools and every kid wanted to take Course Level 2 which is more programming and advanced level math," Wilson said.

Wilson formulated the idea for the Sphero with his partner, Ian Bernstein. They had both been working on robotics and when they met their visions for technology were compatible.

"When Ian and I met up, through a coworker of his and a friend of mine, we knew we could change the way people interact with robots," Wilson said. "We were thinking, 'how do we make a robot that is really, really approachable and change the way people interact with it'."

Wilson said that he and Bernstein went through several ideas of remote controlled devices until one night they were rolling a ball around at 3 am and the light went on.

"We built it that night," Wilson said. "We worked and worked and made it and put a video up, a really crappy one, on YouTube and it got picked up really quick. That weekend we had one hundred thousand views."

Wilson and Bernstein got involved with the TechStars program and were mentored by CEO Paul Berberian and Brad Feld. TechStars helped the two with seed money and developing a business plan and Sphero was revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011.

While Wilson's passion for the Sphero is in its educational value, the Sphero is also designed for fun and play. There are more than 25 apps that can be downloaded to play with the Sphero. The ball, itself, can become a character on your device, can become a weapon to shoot or a can be driven over water.

One unique feature of the Sphero is that it learns as you play with it. The more you play with it, the more it allows you to customize it. You can earn speed and color customization or increased shields or motor life. It can be used in the hand as a controller and this increases the player's dexterity.

"I always knew I was going to change the way people play with robots," Wilson said.

And he may even encourage some future little tech-geeks.