THE BLOG
07/09/2014 04:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014

Robots Are Everywhere! Learning About Technology From Robotics

If it seems like robots are everywhere today, that's because they are.

A quick glance at the weekly news and feature stories from the past couple of weeks has shown, among other things, a starfish shaped robot that cleans your rugs, curtains and floors; a newly-released X-Men movie featuring the giant assassin antagonists who happen to be robots; and a robot who is hitchhiking across Canada. Less well-known but well-worth knowing is some of the fascinating new research that uses robots and robotics to teach children about technology and a variety of educational concepts.

At the University of Southern California, for example, the USC Robotics Research Labnot only does a stunning array of research, but its researchers have generated an enormous amount of K-12 educational STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) materials. These materials include (but are not limited to) online tutorials for hands-on robotics classes, suggestions about using robots with younger children to teach about simple machines and weather and robotics products. Says Maja Mataric, co-director of the USC Robotics Research Lab, "Since people are social creatures, we perceive robots as potentially social creatures as well, and we are naturally intrigued by them. This is especially so for children, who are less inhibited and more open about exploring, interacting, and learning. This is just how we are wired, and it represents an opportunity for creating technological tools for improved learning an access to learning, as well as for therapy and access to therapy for social and cognitive disorders, in children as well as adults."

The "Robotics Academy" at Carnegie Mellon University features a variety of tips for educators and parents on using robotics to teach kids about math, science, engineering and physics. Their extremely well-organized website offers curricular information, products and support to demonstrate ways to use both VEX systems (essentially a kit with all the component parts that enables kids to build a robot) and LEGOs to teach many STEM principles. All of their work and products are based on extensive research.

Robin Shoop, Director of the CMU Robotics Academy, believes that some of the work they are doing at CMU can make learning come alive. "Robots provide the hook that can be used to excite students about STEM academic concepts. Robotics activities in and of themselves will not improve STEM academic performance, but if robotics technologies are introduced correctly, and the STEM academic concepts are properly foregrounded, then robotics provides an excellent organizer to teach kids about STEM."

Ross Higashi, lead curriculum developer at CMU says, "It's a common misconception that involving robots in a curriculum or afterschool program makes STEM magic happen. That's simply not true... Robotics presents a wealth of opportunities to teach meaningful content. But doing that, it's not trivial. It's hard work. You need well-targeted lessons, and you need a teacher who can support students who are learning by doing. In the end, though, as many students and teachers will tell you: it's absolutely worth it, and the hardest fun they've ever had."

And kids do have fun. And not only kids. Jason McKenna, a K-8 teacher in the Hopewell(PA) Area School District who works with the CMU Robotics Academy points out that it's the combination of high engagement, the ability to teach each student at his or her instructional level and provide opportunities for differentiated engagement "that makes Robotics such fun for me as a teacher."

Though many of the research-based robotics curricula and products for kids are focused around middle school and high school-aged students, one team is concentrating its attention on younger children. At Tufts University, Marina Umaschi Bers, the director of the DevTech research group and her colleague Mitch Rosenberg, CEO of KinderLab Robotics, focus their efforts on creating and evaluating robotics systems that are developmentally appropriate for young children. Their goal, says Umaschi Bers, is to pay attention to the "T" and "E" of STEM, areas that have not been well developed, resourced or studied with younger children.

Umaschi Bers doesn't believe that it's ever too early to start teaching these concepts to young children. "It depends on how it is taught and what is taught," she says. Her research with preschool age children has shown that while they "need more time than kindergartners or first graders to play with the materials and explore sophisticated computational such as control loops (if/then statements) and concepts such as input/outputs, which are useful to understand what are sensors. However, they can easily understand the notion of cause and effect and therefore program movement for a robot. It is not about the age of the child, but about their developmental readiness to understand underlying foundational concepts such as sequence, cause and effect, correspondence, etc."

The so-called KIWI (Kids Invent with Imagination) robotics system is designed in a way that responds to young kids. It enables children to learn basic engineering, mathematical and programming concepts by utilizing gears, levers, motors and sensors to create, play with and decorate robots. KIWI, say the researchers, is different from other systems out there because it is designed in a developmentally appropriate way for kids 5-7. Though they certainly have an agenda to teach, the KIWI creators have not neglected the importance of play in a young child's development.

"Kids learn by doing," says Umaschi Bers. "They love to make things. And they love to make things that move and respond to their commands. Children want to be in control. It is part of their developmental trajectories. Robotics is a natural fit for young children's interests and curiosities."

The original impetus for her research and for her work on KIWI dates back to when her own three children were younger. " "I couldn't find anything around that was age appropriate for them. I wanted them to learn about the world that surrounds them, a world full of technologies that involve both computation and engineering, a world of smart objects. I wanted them to understand how those things work and at the same time learn how to ask questions and engage in problem solving. Not necessarily for them to grow up to become engineers but to learn how to use logical thinking and to find new ways of expressing themselves through this new form of literacy: coding."

Umaschi Bers, a proponent of "technological positive development," suggests that her lab's research to date shows a number of ways in which robotics can be used to make young children more technologically literate, and demonstrates the utility of robotics in teaching kids a wide variety of concepts. Not only does some of her team's research substantiate that that "playing" with robots helps children learn about STEM issues, but also that kids can use robotics to learn about other concepts, such as their role in their community.

These three university-based labs and others are making great strides in our understanding of how robotics can be a powerful way of "learning by doing" for children of all ages. CMU's Shoop points out that "Robotic technologies are ubiquitous, they are everywhere, but we just don't call them robots - we call them cars, cell phones, banking systems, the Internet... Since smart systems are everywhere it is important that kids know how they work."

Mitch Rosenberg, from KinderLab, suggests that using robotics to become technologically literate has become a fundamental 21st century skill. "Only a few hundred years ago a person could be king of a country without being able to read or write--he had people called scribes to do that. Today an illiterate person couldn't get a job at a fast food restaurant. If current trends continue it appears that technology literacy is on a similar trajectory--no longer only the province of a few experts, but generally required at some level to participate in the workforce and in society."