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Why use Robots in Education ....

The article below was written by Tribotix's Peter Turner in 2009 and used as a 2 part feature article in Educational Technology Solutions magazine. The brief given when writing the artcle 'Where Australian Robotics Are At …' was to cover:

• How robotics is becoming increasingly important in education, and why
• Where is Australia at in comparison to other countries?
• How can Australia improve the use of robotics in education?

Even though this article was written in late 2009 the message it contains is even more relevant than when it was published, considering the declining numbers of enrollments in tertiary engineering programs.


The robotic industry is seen by some economic forecasters as the next boom industry, similar to the IT boom in 2000. The Japanese government has predicted that the robotics industry will soon expand to become a $13.2 billion dollar industry, whilst the South Korean have committed to nurturing their nation’s robot industry as they believe it has the potential to grow into a $39.4 billion dollar industry. The South Korean government recently "promised to invest as much as 1 trillion Won ($97 million) into research, development, marketing and partnership development to help drive the global market for robotics and raise Korea’s stake in it" - South Korea's goal is a 10 percent market share by 2013 and overall market leadership by 2018.

The growth of the robotic industry is a view point which is also shared by leaders of the engineering community. In the 40th Anniversary of edition of Spectrum, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) flagship publication, 40 of the worlds ‘Technology Masterminds’ were asked what they saw as the most important technology for the coming decade. Kazuo Murano, the President of Fujitsu Laboratories responded “the robot will probably be the technology of the 21st century, as the automobile was the technology of the 20th century. It is expected to address many social issues in Japan and other developed nations—coping with rapid demographic change, providing security, and improving the convenience and comfort of daily life".

So where will this development occur? Currently robots play a major role in manufacturing assembly lines, whilst developing useful roles assisting with medical procedures, surveillance, search and rescue and underwater exploration. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) is a non-profit organisation, one of its roles is to determine the number of robots currently in use and then use this to forecast the number of robots that will be operational in the future. In their October 2008 press release the IFR stated that at the start of 2008 there were 1 million industrial robots and 5.5 million service robots operating throughout the world. The IFR predicts that by the end of 2011 there would be more than 1.2 million industrial robots and 17 million service robots, which indicates a massive increase in the number of service robots.

A service robot is defined by the IFR as "a robot which operates semi or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations". The Japanese see one type of service robot, the ‘personal robot’, as a possible growth area. These robots will address the care of elderly people in their homes by monitoring their health and helping with simple household duties. Other service robot industries, such as autonomous vehicles, will continue to develop and mature as the technology improves. Educational and training robots are another included in the definition of service robots, the IFR predicts that 3.2 million robots could to be sold in the period 2008-2011, an indication that the use of robots as educational tools will become more common and more wide spread.

How robotics is becoming increasingly important in education, and why?

Why do Australians need to develop skills required for these futuristic machines? Robotics will play a major role in the future, so it is important we prepare the current generation of students for this. Paolo Fiorini, currently the co-chair of the IEEE’s Robot & Automation Society’s Education Committee, described the use of Robots for educational purposes as an “intriguing mix of theoretical and practical experience". When used properly in schools the robots form the basis of a cross curriculum activity, an ideal resource that can be used to teach:
• Mathematics; (spatial concepts and geometry),
• Scientific principles (particularly Physics),
• Design & Technology; (electronics, sensors and actuators), and
• ICT (computer programming).

Working with robots enhances creative problem solving techniques. Based on results seen in Italian high schools, Paolo Fiorini suggests that when robots are used as educational tools “students stop being passive targets of teaching methods and become active learning subjects, showing initiative, independence, and a drastic reduction in their learning time”. When robots are used in the classroom, students usually work in small groups of 2 to 4 students per robot. This encourages the development of basic communication and inter-personal skills. The ability to collaborate and convey complex ideas to a fellow students or colleagues is an important skill that is seen as essential by modern employers.

The use of robots in the classroom subconsciously introduces students to possible career paths they may well have never considered. Engineering principles, such as electrical, mechanical, and chemical, as well as IT skills are required to successfully complete a robotic based project. This is important to ensure the skilled worker shortage that exists, particularly in engineering, is addressed during the years when students are thinking about planning their careers. Robotics is a perfect way to show students that engineering and IT can be fun.

Where is Australia at in comparison to other countries?

So how does Australia compare to the rest of the world when it comes to the use of educational robots? This is an extremely difficult question to answer statistically, but it does appear that the use of robots as educational tools in Australia has not kept pace with other countries.

From personal observation, the use of robots as educational tools in Australian schools can be classified in 2 main areas. The first is in the classroom environment, where some teachers who realise the advantages of using robots have creatively fit their usage into the current curriculum. The second area of usage is the school robot clubs, where dedicated teachers supervise interested students in their own time. In Australia the major national robotic competition is RoboCup Junior. This uses the model where schools compete in regions, then states and culminates in a national final. The RoboCup Junior competition is currently dominated by robots constructed from Lego Mindstorm kits but there are other robotic educational tools which could be used which are just as good, if not better.

Robotis's Bioloid and RoboBuilder's Creator kits are examples of alternative educational robotic kits. Robotis's Bioloid and RoboBuilder's Creator kits both come out of South Korea, a country leading the world in delivery of high bandwidth broadband to the home which now has it's eye's set on becoming a leading supplier of robots. The Bioloid and Creator kits are based around smart serially controlled servo modules which can be used to create legged robots, such as robot dogs and humanoids. RoboBuilder's wCK module can even operate autonomously without a host microprocessor. The use of smart serially controlled servo allows a robots intelligence to be distributed around its body, as well as introducing students to communication networks, both topologies and protocols.

Robotis's Bioloid kit has been on the market now for 4 years, and the up take of this technology in Australia highlights how we are slipping behind the rest of the world. 0.4% of Bioloid kits sold throughout the world have been purchased in Australia. The small numbers of Australian schools which have purchased these kits have done so to offer their high-achieving students something more challenging, once they have mastered the Lego Mindstorm. It is estimated that 20,000 robot kits are purchased annually for use in the South Korean educational system, of which the Bioloid makes up 5%. These kits are used in the 2000+ after school robot classes and in the 300 robot education centers that have been created. It is interesting to note that the population of South Korea is only just over twice that of Australia, so if we were to keep pace with the country aiming to be the market leader in robotics by 2018 then we would need at least half the resources currently be made available to South Korean students.

Europe has also embraced the need for education using robotics. Portugal and Italy have very active robotic based education offerings. France too is being very aggressive in preparing their students for a future robotic industry. The French company Aldebaran was recently successful in having their Humanoid, Nao, accepted as the robot for RoboCup's Standard Platform League. Aldebaran were able to secure financial backing for this project from the French government, which provided a significant factor in Aldebaran being awarded the RoboCup tender over the local preferred supplier Tribotix and their collaborative proposal HyKim.

Another French company that designs and manufactures robots for the educational market is POB Technology. Philippe Kervizic from POB Technology says "robotics is becoming very important in French education, for all class levels. Next year, there will be 4 new technology courses offered in junior high schools, 3 of which will be robotics, home automation and communication. All French students will now be exposed to these technologies. High school engineering courses are also going to change and focus on robotics". The French government is assisting this by giving grants to support schools that purchase robots, the teachers are then required to prepare robotics courses material in line with the French education curriculum. Philippe Kervizic also notes that "one of the biggest difficulties is to train the teachers", this is a challenge we in Australia also face.

How can Australia improve the use of robotics in education?

NSW TAFE’s Digi-Girls initiative is a leading example of robotic education in Australia. Digi-Girls is based at the North Sydney Institute of TAFE and their robotic courses have been delivered over the past 4 years with the aid of its Industry Partner Tribotix. The Digi-Girls concept was developed to give Year 9 to 10 girls the opportunity to discover non-traditional career paths, with the robotics component encouraging young women to consider career paths in engineering and IT.

NSW TAFE's DigiGirls program - Jun06

The Digi-Girls program aims to expose young women to the latest technologies and to do this Robotis’s Bioloid was used as the basis for their robotic courses. As mentioned previously, the Bioloid is the next generation of robotic education tools and Digi-Girls where the first educational program outside of the country where the Bioloid’s are manufactured, South Korea, to use these Kits. In the Netherlands the High-Tech Challenge for High School students was inspired by the Digi-Girls robotic program.

These courses delivered at DigiGirls are over 2 consecutive days with class sizes ranging from 24 to 30, with all participants needing to apply to join the course. The girls work in small groups of 2 to 3 and spend roughly 1 day building and 1 day programming a 15 Degree of Freedom robot dog. With the Bioloid kit the programming consists of 2 parts. The girls start by generating complex quadrupedal motions by simply manipulating the robot dog’s limbs and recording these motions. Once the girls are happy with their ‘moves’ they then include these motions in their behaviour control program, using logic and various sensors to initiate the discrete motions. The Digi-Girls program concludes with the girls demonstrating their work to their parents and teachers. These demonstrations are more like choreographed performances which including dance moves, head stands, somersaults and attempts to give life to the robot dog by mimicking real dogs movements such as sitting and scratching.

Paolo Fiorini has suggested that “employing robotics as a teaching tool, or perhaps as the main tool, achieves a deep change in the students by modifying their attitude towards learning, and students become active seekers of knowledge, rather than passively absorbing carefully prepared and measured lectures”. This has been demonstrated at the Digi-Girls robotic courses, with the girls showing considerable intuition and inquisitiveness. Some of the girls were able to teach themselves how to manipulate and program the robot dog, whilst others discovered undocumented software features that greatly increased their efficiency. Any newly discovered ‘tricks’ were passed quickly from group to group as the girls unconsciously collaborated and in doing so helped increase each others productivity.

At the conclusion of each Digi-Girls course the girls are asked to complete a feedback questionnaire. When asked “what technical skills did you acquire during this workshop?” a typical response was “How to build a robot and program it to do tricks and other moves”, whilst "teamwork" was the popular response to the question "What other skills did you acquire?"

Robyn Woolley is the Institute Women's Strategy Officer for the Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE NSW, when Robyn was asked why robots were an important component of the Digi-Girls project she responded "IT has had such an immense impact, however we have had to especially direct educational effort to girls as they are not maximising how IT can influence their future working lives. Robotics is an extension of this same dynamic - so it is essential we engage girls early in this innovation". This is evident by the responses to the final feedback question “how has attending the workshop influenced your career decisions?” which were mostly positive, an example response being “it has shown me that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve anything I want and I would now be interested in a career associated with this topic”.

As the Robotis Bioloid kit is a new style of educational robotic kit I was curious to see how younger children would handle this. So over a school term I took a class of 8 Year 5 and 6 students for 3 hours a week at St. James Primary School in Newcastle. These students worked in 4 groups of 2 and over the term were able to build a 19 Degree of Freedom Humanoid Robot and program this to perform different movements. The Year 6 groups decided to make the Humanoid robots imitate the 'Wiggles' with the robots mimicking a person playing the piano, drums and guitar. The Year 5 group chose to make their Humanoids kick a ball placed at the robots feet, this proved a little too challenging, balancing a robot on one leg whilst the other is moving is extremely difficult, so they made their Humanoids perform dance moves.

As well as the fun part of creating the motions the students learnt basic programming skills, e.g. how to create a flowchart and then implement this. The teacher involved with this trial at St. James was Margaret Harris, Margaret's motivation for having her students participate in this trial were that "students currently use search engines to help locate information and software designed to create text, artworks and presentations. This type of exposure to robots allows students to see that the computer is so much more than just an alternative to books, pens and paper. This is really a much more sophisticated ICT skill for children to be exposed to. We can’t begin too early to expose students to the skills they will need for tomorrow’s jobs".


So what does Australia need to do keep pace with the rest of the world? There needs to be a serious investment made to resource robotic education, part of this resourcing must include training for teachers. Whether this investment is performed by governments or industry it must happen. An online community of teachers and students, collaborating on robotic projects is something that we should see as our goal, to ensure that Australia is well placed to be part of the growing robotic industry.

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