What robotics can bring to the teaching table

Disha Gupta, Adithi Muralidhar and Sugra Chunawala

Robots have always been a subject of fascination for young minds. Be it in a TV series (Vicki, the robot in Small Wonder), cartoons and comics (Irona in Richie Rich) or movies (Terminator Series), robots are an attraction for children. In this article, we reflect upon the experiences we had with students (over a broad age-range) during informal interactions such as science popularization events. We hoped to get some insight into students’ ideas about robots, their interest in the subject, and the possibility of using robotics as a starting point to introduce them to design and technology. Robotics happens to be a field with the potential to combine different disciplines, such as electronics, biology, and design. Given its popular status, it can be a helpful tool in classrooms as it provides a fun context for children to start exploring and playing around with technology.

The word ROBOT comes from the Czech word “robota” meaning forced labour. Colloquially people understand a robot as ‘one that mimics a human being'(Koren, 1985).

Why bring robotics into education?
robo-maid Over the last couple of decades, a growing body of research in the area of early childhood education has emphasized the value of using constructivist methodologies in learning. Some researchers advocate the subject of robotics as part of early education since it can support the integration of constructivist practice and philosophy by engaging children and teachers in the active design of meaningful projects (Bers et al., 2002, p.124). Researchers have also suggested that robotics could be used to address the tenets of constructionism – learning by designing, manipulating (computational) objects to think with, exploring of powerful ideas, and being reflexive.

Informal interactions
The observations discussed below are mainly from four independent science popularization events with special focus on one that took place in a college in Wadala, Mumbai. In this college, we conducted a basic robotics workshop aimed at creating interest in and increasing awareness about robotics. We were also interested in eliciting students’ ideas about robots. A total of 159 secondary and higher secondary science students participated in this workshop (74 girls, 80 boys, 5 did not indicate gender). We had sessions that involved completing a short questionnaire focused on students’ ideas about robots and their uses and demonstrations of a squiggle bot (http://www.instructables.com/id/Easy-Squiggle-Bot/) with instructions on how to make one, and a session addressing student queries regarding career options in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines specifically in the area of robotics. The students chose the order of sessions randomly, based on availability of the resource persons for the sessions.

A squiggle bot is a rudimentary beginner’s robot that can be used to scribble using markers or sketch pens.

While this workshop did not have many opportunities for students to work with their hands owing to time, space, and resource constraints, it did provide some insights into students’ ideas about robots and how robotics could serve as a potential starting point for design and technology education.

Disha Gupta, Adithi Muralidhar and Sugra Chunawala work at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai. They can be reached at disha/adithi/sugrac@hbcse.tifr.res.in.

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