Why teach children robotics?
Technology is critical for innovation, yet schools struggle to get students interested in this area. Should we teach children robotics to change this?
The Queensland government has just announced plans to make teaching robotics compulsory in its new curriculum—aimed at students from prep through to year 10.
Robotics matches the new digital technologies curriculum, strongly supported by the university sector and states, including Victoria. But while, worldwide, there are increasing initiatives such as the Robotics Academy in the US to teach robotics in schools, Australia isn’t doing enough to get it taught in schools.
To explain why we should teach children robotics and how to program robots in schools, we first need to understand what a robot is.
What is robotics?
Essentially, a robot is a mechanical device that can be programmed to follow instructions. South Korea’s intelligent robot “Irobi” can teach English conversation through installed programs updated via the Internet and is operated by remote control and the human voice.
Robots have a processing unit, sensors to perceive their environment and motors and actuators to move their limbs or wheels. They may speak, make other sounds or flash with lights and colours in response to the environment as instructed.
Robots need the ability to follow programmed instructions, not just be controlled remotely.
Why should we teach children robotics in school?
There is considerable anecdotal evidence that students respond well to subjects involving the programming of robots.
Plenty of resources are available online for families and teachers. For example, robot kits such as Lego Mindstorms and Vex Robotics, and simple programmable robots such as Sphero balls are readily available with lesson plans. More sophisticated, engaging robots, such as the NAO robot, can also be purchased.
Robots lend themselves to do-it-yourself activities. For example, a colleague builds robots using a 3D printer and uses his smartphone as an interactive device to communicate with the printed robot.
Here are five reasons to teach children robotics in schools:
1. Children find it fun
There are several competitions for a range of age groups that can positively channel competitive instincts. For example, asking children to build a robot from a Lego set and then running a race to see which robot goes fastest works well.
In my experience, robotics and computer game design are the two most engaging ways of introducing IT into the curriculum.
2. An effective way of introducing programming to students
Programming can be too abstract. By having to control a physical robot and seeing what goes wrong, students learn what robots can and can’t do. They also learn the need for precise instructions.
Robotics helps address the growing demand for teaching science, technology, engineering and maths in schools. As well as exemplifying technology directly by programming the robot, students also learn about these subjects and develop an understanding of how they link together.
3. Provides skills useful in future employment
There’s no doubt that there will be a need for people to be involved in programming mechanical devices in the foreseeable future. The drone industry has taken off. According to The Economist, more than 15,000 drones are being sold in the US each month.
By programming robots, students can discover if they have aptitude and interest in the job market of the future.
4. Suitable for children with a range of abilities
There is considerable evidence that robots are particularly suitable for engaging with children on the autism spectrum. Children on the spectrum respond to the calm, clear, consistent interactions that robots can provide.
ASK NAO is a suite of games that have been developed for the NAO robots to teach autistic children. Milo is a robot developed by US start-up Robokind to help autistic children. Repetition, predictability and clear emotions work well.
5. Demystifies a complex technology
Many stories in the media concern robots—one of the most recent focusses on a report urging the United Nations to ban drones and “killer robots”.
Another report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia warned that robots could replace 40% of Australian jobs by 2025—equating to around 5 million jobs over the next two decades.
Understanding what machines can and can’t do is the best way to address fears.
Experience in trying to build and program robots provides an appreciation of their capabilities and strengths. Personally, I am looking forward to more robotic help in the future.