What are robots doing in classrooms? Or, since there aren’t too many of them present in schools yet: What could they potentially be doing there? As a matter of fact: Quite a lot of things. Programmable pencil sharpeners and blackboard cleaners are definitely not the most sophisticated examples (and based on rather traditional classroom settings with pencils to sharpen and blackboards to clean). The potential of robots in learning contexts goes way beyond assisting with simple, operational tasks.
Experiential and interactive learning
First of all, robots – like machines and computers in general – can be constructed and programmed to transfer knowledge and to train skills. Hence, they are applicable in practically any field or subject. We all know how much more we commit to learning facts by heart, pinning locations of towns on a map or even solving calculations if the task is presented to us in the shape of a simple online game. Robots, with their enhanced ways of interaction (and additionally, an often human-like appearance that almost forces us to interact with them), are likely to transfer more complex contents… and to make the students “experience” something. Learning through interaction and by experience are anything but new paradigms in pedagogics. Robots, if you think about it, offer more than just a few ways to help follow those paradigms.
Robots@School, a study conducted by Latitude in collaboration with LEGO Learning, wanted to find out more about why – and how – school children respond to robots (and technology in general by asking 348 children, ages 8 to 12, from different countries to recount and illustrate how they imagine their every day life if they owned a personal robot. Many of the participating children naturally placed their robots in learning contexts (school, homework…). Most of the robots were described as intelligent, yet very helpful and supportive, and many were obviously considered as role models – hence motivating the children to learn things in order to become just as “smart” themselves.
And even if the idea of a personal learn-and-play-buddy-bot for everyone still tastes a lot like science fiction, the study shows that the presence of robots (or even the act of imagining them) can foster social development, an understanding of concepts like “intelligence” and “interaction” in children by reflecting what they see in their robots.
“Building a robot” as course objective – how does that sound?
However, there is a third important context for robots in education – and that one carries even more practical relevance: Robots cannot only help humans learn about languages, geography or calculion but also about: ROBOTS. And by that means, trigger curiosity and passion for computer sciences, mathematics, engineering…in short, those disciplines where experts are still sought for desperately and that usually contain a particularly high threshold for students to get in touch with.
“Building a robot” as course objective – that does sound exciting and, yes, less intimidating than “Basics of programming”, “Algorithms and data
structures” and “Automation”.
And yet, the skills and knowledge acquired are quite the same.
AFRON and the “10 Dollor Robot” Design Challenge
That last idea – using robots to trigger students’ interest in and understanding for science and engineering – inspired AFRON (African Robotics Network, founded earlier in 2012 by roboticist Ken Goldberg and Ayorkor Korsah in Ghana), to launch a competition named the “10 Dollar Robot” Design Challenge. It encourages professionals, hobbyists and students worldwide to develop a robot for educational purposes that does not cost more than 10 USD (in mass production, that is). For each of the three categories defined, cost restrictions are specified precisely, whereas desired purposes and functions of the robots are intentionally kept vague and open: What the robots do, isn’t as important as what the schools can do with them. (Wired)
A robot for $10 – is it completely impossible, as several online commenters stated immediately?
No, it’s not. First, the $ 10 are a target – submissions that surpass the amount are not rejeceted, but the “proximity to the target” is taken into account as one main criteria to judge the submitted projects. Secondly, the $ 10 refer to mass production – prototypes are expected to cost up to $ 100. And after all – the name suggest it! – it is meant as a challenge. “We wanted to set a price would really get people thinking”, Ken Goldberg explained in Wired.
“We set the bar high (or in this case: low) to provoke really new ideas.” The contest is open for submissions until September 15.
By the way: Not long ago, Ken Goldberg introduced “4 lessons from robots about being
human” in a talk at TEDxBerkele where he derives classical wisdom such as epistemological questions (“How can we know what is real”) from his own experience with robot(ic)s. And gives us another idea for the use of robots in the classroom, this time in humanities: Dealing with robots directs us towards reflecting what separates “us” from “them” – which inevitably confronts us with the quesiton: What makes humans human?