Happy National Robotics Week!

by Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom

Once the stuff of science fiction and wealthy eccentrics, robots are now widely available and affordable for people like you and me. It’s easier than ever to put robots to work in your classroom to bring science and engineering lessons to life.

What is a robot?

My friend Kathy Ceceri, a Maker and author of the project-based book, Robotics, defines a robot as a machine that can “go through the Sense-Think-Act cycle.” That is, it takes in information about its surroundings and uses that information to determine its next actions. Others define robots as machines that can carry out complex, repetitive tasks via instructions from a remote operator or computer.

The robots we see in popular movies tend to be humanoid, perhaps to help audiences relate to them. But when it comes to research, industrial, and military applications, sometimes four legs (or no legs) are better than two.

It’s easy to think of robots as hardware, the physical components that we see and touch. But software is an equally important part of a robot. Just as our bodies are nothing more than an inexpensive collection of chemicals without our beautiful brains to control them, a robotic shell without a computer program to direct its movements is just a collection of plastic or metal parts. On the other hand, a computer program without a hardware shell that permits movement, is simply an algorithm or a group of them. Think: AlphaGo or the iPhone’s Siri.

Robots in real life

Industry has employed robots to perform repetitive tasks for decades. You’ve probably seen videos of automated assembly lines. In the next decade, you might have a robot take over some of your repetitive household tasks, like folding laundry.

Robots have uses that are arguably more important than providing people with crisply folded shirts. They can be used in places that are too dangerous or are inaccessible to humans, like for rescue and recovery after a natural disaster. For example, this video details how robots were used to search underwater after the deadly 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

More Robot Videos

  • Another type of robot used in Fukishima to inspect the nuclear facility 
  • Boston Dynamics on YouTube shows off their cutting-edge robots. 
  • My highlight reel from the traveling museum exhibit that got its start in Chicago, Robot Revolution. 
  • See the snake robots and “snake monsters” developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics lab. 

Robots in the classroom

If you want to bring robots into your classroom, affordable options include:

  • Sphero, the robotic sphere, is programmable, durable and even waterproof.
  • Ozobot is a low-cost robot that fits in your palm. Students can program it with proprietary code as well as an “old-fashioned” kind of graphical interface in which students use red, blue, green and black markers to draw special codes on paper to draw out certain behaviors from the robots.
  • Finch is the original classroom robot. These bird-like robots remain tethered to a computer, which helps keep things calm in your classroom.

As robots become a more common teaching tool, evangelists and online communities make it easy to find new ways to incorporate them into lessons.

What does your robot future look like?