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Robots in the Classroom: What Are They Good For?

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(Stephen Chin/Flickr)
(Stephen Chin/Flickr)

Talk of robots in the classroom may have seemed far fetched a few years ago, but it’s safe to say that the future has arrived – at least in some classrooms. Educators are beginning to experiment with how robots can add value to their classrooms, and while it’s by no means common -- they’re still quite expensive for many school budgets -- robots paired with specific software and curriculum are offering interesting new learning opportunities.


To explain difficult abstract concepts in science and math subjects, some teachers are using RobotsLab BOX. It's a kit that includes a quadcopter, tablet, robotic arm, a spherical robot, a circular robot and lesson plans to go with all of them. Teachers use the tablet to manipulate the various robots into demonstrating different STEM concepts. Because all the software and lessons come preloaded, teachers don't need programming or robotics knowledge to make it work. The whole kit costs $3,500.

The founder of RobotsLab, Elad Inbar, said that teachers complained that their students were coming into first year engineering and computer science college classes without a solid foundation of math concepts. The suite of products his team ultimately developed use robots to show students that the equations and graphs they slave over mean something in the physical world.

“We are trying to use the power of visual learning to bridge all the ‘I’m not a math person’ stuff,” Inbar said. “They can actually use their senses to understand it.”


For example, a lesson about quadratic functions uses a quadcopter robot to demonstrate what the equation means in real life by correlating the area viewed on a camera attached to the bottom, with the graph. If programmed with a quadratic equation, the quadcopter rises to specific heights, demonstrating the visible relationship between the hovering robot and the area captured by the camera.

After students have been introduced to the concept and have seen it demonstrated on the robot, they can try to program the robot themselves. The hands-on aspect helps students to understand that they can manipulate the robot themselves with the right code, Ibar said.

“We have teachers who are doing project-based learning and they give the robots to the students with the tablet and they say, 'You figure it out and come back and tell me what you learned,'” Inbar said. While his product includes curriculum and lessons teachers can use, the robot itself is just a platform that can be programmed by tinkering students just as effectively as by a teacher.

Jerry Moldenhauer has been using VEX and Lego Mindstorm robots in his engineering classes at Eastside Memorial High School in Austin, Texas for several years. Until now, he's mostly used them to offer advanced students challenge problems, giving them opportunities to design concepts and practice programming. This year, he started using the RobotLab BOX kit with his whole class, and he's found that it boosts engagement and crystallizes difficult concepts.

“They have solved a big problem and that is bringing in curriculum, especially for math and physics,” Moldenhauer said. He prefers teaching with project-based methods, but said it can be challenging for math teachers to come up with engaging and relevant projects that also get students to practice enough math to solidify what they've learned.

“[The robot] gives the instructors a tool to get them interested in the learning and then the math behind it is a surprise to them,” Moldenhauer said. Kids are calculating the velocity of the robot without realizing they’re using algebra. "It really makes the connection better for them,” he said. Moldenhauer finds the robot especially useful for explaining the math behind more advanced engineering topics his class will work towards. They often don't have a firm grasp of the algebra they'll need and using the robot to visually demonstrate the concepts helps them review.

Moldenhauer is especially grateful for the extra engagement and excitement students show when working with the robot at this time of year, when most are already checking out for the summer. He used funds his department set aside for the engineering program to purchase the RobotLab BOX, but expects to use it across science and math departments. Sharing the robots that way helps justify the cost, but even without it, Moldenhauer says it was well worth the expense for the change he's seen in his student's ability to understand abstract concepts.


In Onslow County, North Carolina, Gretchen Robinson is using robots with students at Northwoods Elementary School of Technology and Innovation. She’s started out slowly, incorporating the humanoid NAO robot her school purchased into a few lessons with each grade K-5. Different models of the NAO robot range from $16,000 to $20,000. Students named the robot ABBI, short for Awesome Bot Bringing Innovation, the winner of a student name contest.

Whereas many schools are focusing on using robots to teach science, technology, engineering and math, Robinson’s school is focusing on literacy. The kindergarten class has been learning about basic storytelling, so Robinson programmed a story the teacher wrote into the robot for it to read aloud to students. Afterwards the students answered questions the ABBI posed to them.


The second-graders were learning common economic vocabulary like "income" or "expense." ABBI described a term without using the word itself and a small group of students discussed which answer to choose from a pile of 20 flashcards. When they reached a decision, they held up the vocabulary term and the robot used visual recognition to “read” what they had written and tell them if they’d gotten it right or wrong. “Through trial and error I learned that the students really liked the vision recognition,” Robinson said.

While she’s pleased with the engagement the robot has generated -- students never want the lesson to end when ABBI is involved -- Robinson said learning to program it was a steep learning curve. “Learning to program the robot at the beginning of the year was very time-consuming,” Robinson said. She spent around 40 hours programming a single lesson. Now that she’s had more practice she can do the same lesson in just a few hours.

Robinson has started to teach students the programming language and is helping the winners of a poetry contest code their work into ABBI so it will recite it back to them. Next year she hopes to do some small group programming work to at least expose kids to programming concepts before they move onto middle and high school where they might take it up more seriously.

“We’re a school of technology so I think it will be something that’s useful for us,” Robinson said. She’s aware that right now the robot is taking more time than it should, but she wants her students to be exposed to the many ways it can be programmed early to pique their interest in robotics and programming for more exploration down the road.

She’s also noticed that students are more willing to retry answering a question again without argument when ABBI tells them they are wrong. “The kids sometimes work better not for their teacher,” Robinson said. “Because the robot is cool and unusual they are excited about working with him.” The robot also gets everyone participating. “A lot of kids don’t want to disappoint their teacher, so they either won’t answer or they’ll mumble an answer,” Robinson said. “Whereas with the robot everybody wants to answer.

But Robinson doesn't take it personally. She sees it as just another tool to help reach all kids, even the quiet ones. Her school has only been experimenting with the robot for a short time and hasn't even had a chance to poll students on the differences between learning from a teacher or from the robot.

Robinson sees students' willingness to engage, to collaborate and to work on a lesson for as long as it takes to understand the content as positive signs of learning. “They want to work with the robot for as long as possible," Robinson said. "Every time their lesson is done they're disappointed.” She's also quizzed students on content after they're done working with the robot and has found them to have a greater grasp of the information.

While Robinson has programmed ABBI to teach short group lessons on things like how to read a bar graph or vocabulary, she's never tried to have the robot lead an entire lesson. She thinks its possible, but would be a heavy programming lift and probably isn't possible anytime soon without some changes to the coding software.


A big selling point for robots in classrooms is their novelty. Educators are hoping to turn student excitement into a passion for learning how to program and manipulate a robotic platform.

Robot company founders, like Inbar, know the novelty factor is working in their favor, but they don't see robots getting old. The robot is just a platform for students and teachers to manipulate, after all, and its applications can  constantly change and evolve.

Robinson isn't concerned her students will get tired of their robot anytime soon. Her school only has one, so students only engage with it once or twice a month, for lessons that lend themselves to it. "I do think the robot is a powerful learning tool," Robinson said.  "However, I do not feel like it would be as commanding if it was used on a daily basis as an instructional tool, students may lose interest."

“It’s about opening up the world of computational thinking in an age appropriate way for them,” said Vikas Gupta, CEO of Play-i, a nascent educational robotics company with aspirations in both the consumer and education markets. The robot can be controlled with simple swipes on a tablet, and was designed for children as young as five. Gupta insists that even without writing code, children are beginning to develop “computational thinking,” the ability to break down a problem into its parts, understand those individual elements and then rearrange them.

“For kids who see this technology all around them, if we can give them a mental model for how things work, that’s really important,” Gupta said. As kids manipulate the tablet, they watch the robot dance or sing and realize their power to create in a software-driven world. For older kids, Play-i has software to allow kids to see blocks of code that they can string together to dictate the robots actions.


An interesting observation struck both Gupta and Inbar as they designed their robots. When testing a prototype of his robot with kids, Gupta discovered that girls were uninterested in the robot when it had visible wheels and wires. Little girls quickly identified that first version of the robot as a mechanical toy meant for boys. The company then developed a robot with rounded curves, more of a fantastical critter than the stereotypical boxy robot. “It became something that they could see in their imaginations,” said Gupta. “There was no stereotype they could apply.”

As educators think about the benefits and drawbacks of using robots in the classroom, drawing in girls has become an important focus. Anectdotally, Inbar said teachers report that girls outperform boys in computer science when they’re in all-female environments. “If you go to an all-girls school you will see that the performance is actually higher than in all-boys schools,” Inbar said. But if girls aren't exposed early to science and technology, many quickly succumb to stereotypes that those fields aren't appropriate for girls.

“We want to show robots and programming is not just for boys,” Inbar said. RobotLab is currently running two contests, a fashion show in Austin and a Robot Idol competition between schools in Northern and Southern California. Inbar found girls were more interested in programming robots if it was connected to designing something creative. “There is no problem with girls’ engagement in STEM subjects,” Inbar said. Educators just have to help them realize they like it and try to downplay the competition with boys, which can sometimes make girls withdraw.

Teachers often run into a similar situation when teaching computer science. “Boys already love computers, they already know they are going to be awesome at this," said Sheena Vaidyanathan, a computer science teacher in Los Altos public schools. "Girls have to be sold on the idea. The machine itself doesn't attract them as much, but what it can do does." Girls are often battling stereotypes about the kind of boy, or girl, who likes programming. Drawing girls into subjects like computer science and robotics well before high school norms set in -- not to mention the accompanying hormones -- is critical, Vaidyanathan said.



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