The children also learn STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) by watching and interacting with robots that demonstrate the practical results of the day’s lesson. “Kids recognize when they are learning something themselves—robots give them that,” says Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, a research organization that specializes in educational technology. Robots are proving to be valuable educational tools from the lower grades all the way up to graduate school. “Building and programming these devices is part of becoming a creative science and engineering kind of person,” he adds.
Furthermore, by interacting with robots, kids learn a component of programming known as computational thinking—without even realizing it. This programming may be visual at first but over time it transitions to the kind of character-based coding that enables machines to execute more complex missions.
Educational automatons take many forms—including mini humanoids, boxes on wheels and multirotor flying drones. Scientific American highlights four platforms that demonstrate a robot’s educational prowess.
Play-i robots are designed to engage children by making the abstract concepts of programming more accessible. These ball-shaped bots—named Bo and Yana—have distinct educational roles. Bo is made up of four connected spheres that children program to glide along the floor on three wheels, avoiding obstacles and delivering small items in the process. Yana is a single sphere laden with sensors. The robots connect wirelessly with a variety of Apple iOS and Google Android mobile devices using Bluetooth 4.0. The programming process and subsequent play encourages kids to engage in computational thinking, for example by instructing the robots to recognize objects in their environment and react in different ways. “The goal is to keep interaction open-ended and free-play so kids discover what they can do with the robot. The robot draws them in while posing new challenges over time,” says Play-i founder and CEO Vikas Gupta. Learning activities include hide-and-seek, solving a maze, racing the robots and scenarios in which children program how their bots will play. Bo and Yana benefitted from Play-i’s successful Kickstarter fund-raising campaign and are expected to be available by year’s end.
RobotsLAB offers a variety of educational robots, including the mini humanoid NAO and the two-wheeled Qbo series. The company also sells a kit known as the RobotsLAB BOX, which includes a tablet computer with 50 preloaded lesson plans and quizzes to help teachers incorporate the flying AR.Drone, stationary ArmBot, rolling Sphero and mobile Mustached Rover into their math and science curricula. “This helps teachers create the bridge between the concrete world and the abstract world of mathematical concepts,” says RobotsLAB CEO Elad Inbar.
EZ-Robot is an open-source software and hardware platform that lets students craft and program new robots as well as share those creations and programs with other EZ-Robot users. The company’s EZ-Builder design software works on personal computers and mobile devices and uses a graphical user interface (like Windows) to facilitate novice robot-making. Owners of certain 3-D printers can even print new parts for their robots, including the hexapod Six, humanoid JD and roverlike Roli.
A bit more advanced than the other robots, Linkbots are modular, customizable machines that can be assembled into a variety of different robot types. The two main modules are equipped with accelerometers and connect wirelessly. Students working with the modules can use one module to control the other by simply moving one of them, sort of like waving a Nintendo Wii controller.
The robots, made by Barobo, can be programmed via a process similar to stop-motion animation—students use their hands to manipulate the robot, training it that way instead of giving it instructions with a computer. The Linkbots also come with software for programming more complex movements.