Science and technology are extremely popular with today's youth; they are also a pathway to career opportunities in the future. Engaging in technology activities when young can help to stimulate interest in those fields, develop mastery of necessary technologies, and energize the classroom.
As technology has progressed, the accessibility of robotics to the layperson has also improved. Twenty years ago, robotics kits for kids were limited to simple structures and motors. Now they are sophisticated enough to employ a multitude of sensors and motors as well as interface with a desktop computer to allow for robust programming experiences, all at a cost that makes them accessible to the classroom. What are the virtues of robotics kits, and how can they be used in the classroom?
Hands-On Learning & Engagement
Kids of all ages enjoy hands-on construction activities, so that aspect of robotics is accessible across the board; further, abilities in this area vary widely within an age group, which allows individuals to achieve mastery and demonstrate competence. Youth love a chance to show their peers (or teachers!) what they’ve learned and what they can do, and the many different subsystems involved (structure, motion, sensors, programming, manipulation, etc.) allows more opportunities for them to find something that suits their particular interests.
Problem Solving & Training for Future Careers
Problem solving strategies are obviously crucial, as it is difficult to construct a working robot unless the participants have a grasp of what it is that they are supposed to do and how they can go about accomplishing it. The design process used by engineers begins with understanding the capabilities and limitations of their tools and equipment, researching and understanding the problem at hand, conceptualizing a solution to that problem, constructing that solution, testing it to see how well it works, and revising their solution based on its performance. These steps are by no means restricted to engineering. They form the basis for sound problem solving across the board and can be transferred into any number of contexts.
The addition of a computer programming component allows for deeper investigations into issues such as remote sensing, control, and autonomous functioning. Indeed, many of the issues encountered when constructing and building a robot can promote a better appreciation for what Nature achieves in smaller, lighter packages. After all, the “smartest" computers can still be beaten by insects when it comes to robust sensory recognition, navigation, adaptation to changing environmental conditions, and “graceful" degradation in the face of incomplete sensory information or physical damage.
Studying robotics in the classroom has the potential to make computer programming a less abstract endeavor, engage youth who would otherwise not be interested in technology or engineering, and bring high-technology down to the practical, everyday level.
Creative Ways to Keep the Learning Going
Gaining access to affordable robotics solutions such as the Mindstorms NXT kit is only a part of the battle (or solution); the true challenge is coming up with additional projects that will continue to engage kids while also allowing them to develop mastery of both life and content specific skills. While this list is not exhaustive, the projects contained here will hopefully help you to think of your own!
All animals and plants possess adaptations that greatly enhance their “fitness" and ability to survive or thrive in their environment. Have students design their robots with only specific pieces in the kit. Reducing their supply of parts forces them to look more closely at the tack they’re taking and come up with a design that completes the objectives without sacrificing speed, ability to acquire food, etc. Test the robots under controlled circumstances and use the outcome to design and/or build the next generation of robots!
As unlikely as it seems, genetics and robotics actually go hand in hand- the structure of an organism is determined by the components that comprise it, and those components are, in turn determined by the blueprint. In the case of reality, that blueprint just happens to be deoxyribose nucleic acid, and in the case of a robot, the blueprint might be CAD drawings or a written description. those components reflect that work together. Have the students spend time studying the components; afterward, incorporate a challenge by restricting the components they can use in the construction process.
Writing project journals, technical manuals, documentation, or basic instructions for classmates can all be incorporated into a robotics project, and the product can be posted on the Internet to add an additional technology element to the project. Another possibility is that of doing interviews of people to find out about their first contacts with robots, as well as their views on them.
Catching your robots in motion gives a far better picture of how they operate than any static picture ever taken; podcasts or vodcasts, wikis, and the like can provide a running record of the project while also giving youth a chance to share information, collaborate, and discuss their projects.
I hope this article has inspired and encouraged you to persue different ideas in the classroom. If you have additional thoughts or ideas on using robots let us know in the comments.