Kids these days were born in the technology age. They are inherently open-source learners; they learn by doing and getting their hands dirty. Seeing the problem unfold as they progress enhances the learning process, and so many new tech tools and gadgets make the most of that hands-on style of learning. But there is a sense that all kids have access to technology and are inherently “good” at it. Not so. Many in middle school and younger don’t use social media, and many do not own smart devices—though they may borrow a parents’ and some are lucky enough to have their school provide tablets. School and public libraries are a vital resource for kids that don’t have these luxuries and a supplemental support for those that do. Even with the access to technology and basic “born digital” instincts, today’s tweens still need guidance when it comes to tech.
Several new-to-the-market products, particularly a slate of build-your-own robots, offer ideal opportunities for young people to think like a coder, a programmer, an inventor, and more. Though some of these products come with a hefty price tag, they are designed to be used over and over again—offering multitudes of library programming possibilities and classroom applications.
Robots that teach programming and coding as one of their functions are really popular right now. The main goal of these gadgets is to encourage an interest and facility with coding principles, which often carries the stigma of being highly complex and boring. The industry has come a long way, creating devices and bots that appeal to all ages and ranges of ability.
Looking a bit like the adorable BB-8 from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Sphero is one of the most popular toys on the robotic market. (In fact, a new special edition BB-8 Sphero is now available for a limited time for diehard fans.) Part RC car, part robotic pet, you can’t help finding even the basic white model adorable. Many of the accompanying apps are free, and the ones that aren’t won’t break the bank. The clear SPRK+ version allows you to see exactly what makes the Sphero tick and comes with a few educational accessories. The Lightning Lab app lets students program the Sphero with a variety of techniques. Sphero has a coding language, Oval, that teaches programming with visual blocks that represent specific functions. Kids can also draw on the screen with specific colors and the Sphero will replicate the pattern and colors accordingly. Librarians and teachers can assign different logins to track student progress as well. This robot ($129.99) requires a touch screen, Bluetooth-enabled, compatible device.
Dash is another spherical robot, part of the robot duo, Dash and Dot, from Wonder Workshop. Dash’s interface is simple enough that it’s rated for ages five and up, but the included app, Blockly, elevates the user experience. The drag-and-drop block interface is similar to Sphero’s Oval language. Even better, Dash is somewhat open-sourced, inviting users 12 years old and up to create their own apps using Objective-C and Java. Students can easily find other apps created by peers online. Educator disclaimer: Dash can launch balls across the room. Dash ($129.99) also requires a touch screen, Bluetooth-enabled, compatible device, preferably a tablet.
Cubelets are single functioning, modular robotic cubes with magnetic connectivity. Students can connect these blocks in any order to perform any desired function. Kids will have to think critically to discover what steps are needed to complete a given task. Cubelets facilitate open discovery and learning through play and experimentation. The website also includes a lot of educator support and lesson plan ideas. The newer tablet feature even includes accessing recorded data from the sensor cubelet. The creators recommend buying enough Cubelets so that everyone will be able to explore each block’s function, but depending on your intentions and your budget, that may not be possible. The 12-pack ($329.95) is the ideal minimum. This pack also has the Bluetooth cube ($59.95 from the individual Cubelet menu) to unlock more functions, control from a tablet, and receive updates.
The Bit, produced by Ozobot, is a tiny robot—it fits in the palm of the smallest of hands. These bitty bots have color receptors on their underbelly which show them where they need to roll. The bots default to follow black lines that are at least one-quarter inch thick. Following the included code key, students can add different combinations of colors within the black lines to tell the robot a command. The worksheets feature puzzles that can be duplicated or used as inspiration. Some educators have taken it a step further and directed students to use these tiny robotic friends to create storyboards. Ozobots are the most affordable of this bunch, running at only $50 for a starter pack, which includes a tiny bot, markers, an activity workbook, skins and stickers, and the charging cord. Ozobots launched a new version this November called the Ozobot Evo ($99). The Evo brings the Ozobot up to speed with the other bots on the market, allowing it to be controlled via Bluetooth using a smart device. They added proximity sensors to this model as well as the ability to code with more complexity through the device. Librarians and educators should be aware that this newer bot has the ability to “text” Evo versions of emojis globally to any user.
littleBits are another big name in the library tech world. Similar to Cubelets, littleBits connect with
magnets and each piece has its own distinct function. The possibilities are endless and may seem overwhelming to a librarian just getting started with this type of tech. But though they initially seem daunting to use, they are incredibly easy and there are many online tutorials to get you started. Though structured lesson plans can work well with littleBits, sometimes not giving a directive allows for more creative thinking and really extraordinary results. The littleBits website has user-submitted complete lesson plans from beginning tutorials to creating a sorting hat. littleBits ($99.95+) is a great plug-and-play technology resource that can be used and adapted for multiple curricular tie-ins.
SparkFun Inventor’s Kit (SIK) isn’t just one kit—there are actually many kits to choose from. SIK focuses on learning Arduino, which is essentially a simple mini-computer. Each kit comes with an instruction manual to teach users some of the basic things they can make. While it does teach circuitry, it does not require soldering. This product ($99.95+) may be best for individual or small team, self-directed learning.
Kano’s Computer Kit Bundle allows kids to build their own functioning computer and learn to code it. It runs on Raspberry Pi (“the brain of your computer.”). Instructions are easy to follow, making a seemingly intimidating task highly achievable. Once constructed, kids are able to code with Python and play with Scratch. The computer also teaches drag-and-drop coding that can be used in Minecraft. The company immediately sold 18,000 units during their Kickstarter campaign. The range of activities may be a bit too limited within a public library setting, since this isn’t a project that can’t be reconstructed again. Individual kits ($259.95+) are on the pricey side; educator “bundle” packages start at $1,299.95. There are additional kits that you can be purchased separately, including ones that allow users to build their own camera or speaker.
Bloxels are a high priority on my shopping list for next fiscal year. It’s a perfect blend of physical and virtual. Each box includes a selection of colored cubes, a grid for placing the cubes, and an app to download. Think of it like a cubist, unplugged Lite Brite. Kids place the squares—each of which symbolizes different elements of a video game—into their grid. They then take a picture of their creation using the app and it transfers the information into the digital world. Users can customize their digital landscape, and create their own unique characters. A single Bloxel kit ($50) is incredibly affordable, although you do need access to a touch screen, preferably a tablet. Student creations can be uploaded and shared on the Bloxels website. Bloxels also has an educational site with access to lesson plans and activities at no cost.
Virtual reality has hit all mainstream outlets, and the craze should only increase. Oculus Rift ($599+) is a recognizable name, but it’s not really attainable on the average budget. Even if you can afford the headset, having a computer that will do it justice is sometimes out of reach of the regular gamer, let alone a school or public library. This holiday season, gamers will see if Playstation VR ($400) has what it takes to make VR gaming go mainstream. For those looking for a much lower price point, handheld VR headsets that work with mobile devices can be the way to go. There’s the Merge VR Goggles ($59.99) or Samsung’s Gear VR ($79.99). Software designers, including companies like zSpace, Alchemy VR, and Immersive VR Education are churning out educational experiences, whether it be exploring the Titanic, an Egyptian tomb, or the surface of Mars. Librarians can supplement teacher’s curricula, or have this circulating within their department, promoting a virtual adventure. Most manufacturers don’t recommend these types of experiences for children under eight years old.
While some of the above price tags may be daunting, there are ways to make some of these gadgets more attainable. During Black Friday and Cyber Monday, loads of these products were offered at a discount. Many companies offer educator discounts, and there are many grants available through local and national organizations like ALA. Finally, you may want to also check out websites like classwish.org, so you can specifically ask for your dream items. Parents and community members may be more generous funding specific goals. No matter what your budget size is, incorporating technology in some scope is possible and wise.
By Christina Keasler