Imagination, creativity and mathematics collide when teaching children robotics
From Pixar’s Wall-E to Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Terminator, robots have always fascinated people. They play a number of significant in science-fiction, being portrayed as man’s best friend or biggest threat. In the real world, the question of how we are going to co-exist with the robots scientists are developing has been thrust into the spotlight, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates calling Artificial Intelligence (AI) one of the biggest threats to mankind, with a risk that they may become far more intelligent than the humans that created them. Although we mostly hear about robots in films and books and from prominent scientists, we are also increasingly surrounded by them in everyday life. As a result, in education, robotics clubs, camps and lessons have experienced an exciting boom in recent years, with educators and parents recognising the benefits of using it to teach fundamental design, engineering, mathematics and creative principles, and children becoming completely absorbed in the fun, practical side of creating their own robots.
Put simply, a robot is a machine that is able to carry out a complex series of actions automatically, and is usually programmable by a computer. Automation is becoming more and more prevalent, as it reduces the human labour needed for repetitive, intensive tasks and frees up our time to spend on other things. Robots are therefore on the rise, being used in areas from car factory production lines, to self-operating hoovers, to speech recognition tools, to helping the elderly manage everyday tasks. Google and other companies are test-driving self-driving cars on public roads, and governments are using drones and other robots in war zones. ‘Robotics’ is the area of technology that emcompasses the design, construction and operation of all types of robots. Educators and parents are particularly interested in robotics as a way to teach children ‘computational thinking’, in other words, how to design the series of commands (the ‘programme’) that causes a robot to do something. A major advantage of teaching children these computational thinking skills is that they gain an understanding of the fundamental logic that underscores all present and future digital technology. It is also popular because it is one of those rare practices that links mathematical problem-solving skills with artistic design and creativity.
So how and what are students taught in robotics? Depending on their age group, children like robotics because it is essentially learning through having fun, experimenting and playing around with computers. The aim is for them to build robots to do whatever they command them to, and learn much more about the fields of programming, engineering, design and the digital arts. For children as young as four, there are robotics clubs using toys to foster the basic skills. Kinderlab Robotics, for example, have developed a simple robot, the “KIBO”, that comes with a series of building blocks that act as commands. At clubs using KIBOs, children learn to put the command-blocks in the right order and scan them, which makes the robot enact them. They are encouraged to be creative, making up dance routines, which they dance along to or synchronise their robots with their friends’. For other young children, some of the most popular courses are those using LEGO Mindstorms, where they learn to build specially designed robots out of lego and create basic programmes to get them to perform simple functions. They even have the chance to take part in LEGO robotics competitions. Older students can learn how to use more complex computing-electronics systems such as Arduino, which allows you to connect computers with physical objects, to create robots such as a talking clock, a bug zapper, or temperature-controlled fan. Courses progress to as high a level as the student is able to work at. Eventually, older, more advanced students cover aspects of mechanical engineering, construction principles, automation and motors, as well as coding and programming. At all stages of robotics, students are required to use their imagination, break down problems and find solutions, in order to make their robot run smoothly. Students also love the creative part of designing and building the robot itself. This connection between the physical object and the series of commands is incredibly useful in education – thinking up a creative, technology-based solution to a real world problem can only give them an advantage in the future.
Teaching children problem-solving has also been recognised as a key requirement in modern education. Elon Musk, the founder of a number futuristic companies including SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Paypal, is convinced that children learn most effectively when they are presented with a practical task, which requires them to learn new tools and skills to solve it. In a recent interview about the school he has founded, Musk said, “It’s important to… teach to the problem and not the tools… Let’s say you’re trying to teach people about how engines work. A more traditional approach would be saying, ‘We’re going to teach all about screwdrivers and wrenches.’ This is a very difficult way to do it. A much better way would be, like, ‘Here’s the engine. Now let’s take it apart. How are we gonna take it apart? Oh you need a screwdriver!’”. Robotics does just this – a child’s desire to make the robot follow their command creates an incentive for them to learn programming and design skills without even realising. The process they go through and problems they must overcome to make the robot walk forward, turn left, flash its lights, or do a dance, teaches them a whole host of useful skills and provides them with gratifying, immediate results.
This practical approach to learning skills through using computers and robots has also been cited as a way to spark kids’ interest in maths. We all know that sinking feeling when our child is refusing to do their maths homework, which usually consists of a couple of pages of calculations from a textbook, or struggling to understand the relevance of Pythagoras’ theorem to their daily existence. British technologist and businessman Conrad Wolfram argues that using more technology to teach maths can stimulate children’s imaginations as it focuses education more on problem-solving and critical thinking than pure arithmetic. Wolfram emphasises that in the real world, maths is used for a whole range of exciting applications, such as geology, archaeology, astronomy, art and design, law enforcement and others. In classrooms, however, the focus is still on developing fluency in pen-and-paper calculations. If we can show children that maths is not just studied in books, and capture their imaginations, it may also encourages them to apply their knowledge to more exciting when they leave school. Robotics is a great place to start.
Aside from taking lessons, there are some other fun ways for children to learn the principles of robotics and build up some of the skills and ways of thinking that it fosters. Mostly, they also need the input of children’s imagination, which is why they are such a fantastic way to encourage creative learning. The most backed board game in the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter’s history is Robot Turtles and teaches children as young as four basic programming and coding concepts. A similar tech-focused game is Code Monkey Island, which has been incredibly popular. There are also physical games such as Hackaball, which is a responsive ball that can be paired with iPads and other pieces of technology for children to create their own games. The best thing about robotics-focused activities is that the children almost forget they are learning as they become totally absorbed in the game.
The success of robotics clubs and courses has been mainly linked to the level of enjoyment that children find in them, but it is a happy coincidence that the skills they pick up along the way tend to be very life enhancing. According to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, “Learning to write programs stretches your mind and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains.“ Robotics has captured the imagination of many children in different countries, and we should utilise this engagement to teach them more about the practical application of maths, tech, problem-solving, art and design, while they are enjoying putting together the next WALL-E.