Carnegie Mellon University's Emily Hamner (right) works on a Telepresence Robot Kit (TeRK) Flower with Christopher Bartley.
Are kids' home-built robots laying the foundation for inspired inventions?
Last Updated July 19, 2007
Sean Ovas, an 11-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., already has a master plan.
"I've built about 20 robots in the past three months," Sean says. "What I really want to do with them is something to help mankind."
Meanwhile, Sean's 13-year-old brother, Ryan, already has his sights on using robotics in his biotechnology.
These domestic robots aren't quite the grandiose kind you'll see in today's sci-fi thrillers. They're rather unglamorous-looking home-built objects made of Lego blocks, wheels, motors and sensors that can be programmed to do basic activities, like moving around obstacles, picking up scraps on the floor or playing different sounds.
But industry observers and educators alike say that children like Sean and Ryan who have been building starter bots might also be laying the foundations for tomorrow's inspired inventions.
Competitions, courses use robots to promote innovation
LEGO MINDSTORMS AlphaRex. (The LEGO Group)
One of the drivers behind hands-on robot building for the mainstream junior crowd was none other than Lego, whose Mindstorms kits are now being used in schools and are the focus of global competitions.
Today thousands of teams of kids ages eight to 14 participate in FLL (First Lego League) competitions around the world, where they build and program robots based on a theme, such as nanotechnology or alternative energy.
In 2006, 303 teams competed in regional and provincial competitions across Canada, in teams that have a maximum of 10 students. This year, FLL reports there may be as many as 350 to 400 teams competing.
If you think that a concept like nanotechnology — technology at the molecular level — is a bit beyond an eight-year-old's level, guess again.
Karen Rosenthal, first regional director for FLL Canada, said one team at the 2006 competition conceived a robot with a brush for an arm that scrubbed the insides of a large flexible hosen that was painted red. It was their concept of a nanomachine that could clean plaque in arteries.
"That's a huge extension for little kids to make," Rosenthal said.
Tomken Road Middle School in Mississauga has a science and technology inquiry program that includes robotics on the curriculum. Demand is so high that in the 2006/07 school year, it had more than 325 applicants vying for only 56 openings.
"From our point of view, robotics creates huge motivation and interest level for children," said Diane Gordon, the school's principal.
"Robotics, for one, can teach then new technologies and learn to solve problems in real-life situations that can be applied and transferred later on," Gordon said.
Variety of kits to explore at home
Qwerkbot, a three-wheeled robot that can send images over the Internet, is one of several robots that can be built with the Telepresence Robot Kit (TeRK), a combination of a robot controller, commonly available parts and assembly instructions (recipes) developed by the CREATE Lab in Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. (Ken Andreyo/CMU)
As schools open their minds to robotics as a teaching tool, researchers are equally intent on making sure that kids get more avenues for generating great ideas.
For example, the Montreal-based Playful Invention Company, creators of the PicoCrickets robot kits for children, grew out of the research efforts of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass.
PicoCrickets are specifically designed to attract children who more interested in music and the arts. They can build and program brightly coloured moving sculptures or create interactive jewelry using the kit's motors, lights, sounds and sensors — along with some glitter, pompoms and Styrofoam balls.
"With Crickets we're pushing [robotics] to younger kids and a broader audience. It's not just about building motors to drive robots. We've just 'lowered the floors and widened the walls,'" said Mitchel Resnick, professor of learning research at MIT Media Lab.
The TeRK (Telepresence Robot Kit) is another do-it-yourself offering sold online that is designed to broaden the appeal of homegrown robotics, said Emily Hamner, a member of the development team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Beyond the usual programming bells and whistles, TeRK robots can be connected to the internet using wireless networking technology and people can add parts from local hardware stores to expand their creations. Kits range from a three-wheeled model with a mounted camera to a six-petalled flower loaded with infrared sensors.
"The best learning happens when kids are creating, designing and inventing on their own," Resnick said. "Most great inventions are based on this ability."
Robotics summer camp
At the 2007 IBM Exite (Exploring Interest in Technology and Engineering) summer camp in Toronto, 11- to 13-year-old girls are being asked to program their robotic creations to compete in a "So You Think Your Robot Can Dance" competition.
"By integrating pop culture into the project, it helps them to develop their programming skills while tying their robotics work into something they can relate to," said Deirdre Athaide, solutions manager for IBM Canada.
Meanwhile, parents are increasingly seeing robotics as a way to introduce youngsters to technology and stretch their imaginations without having them sit in front of a screen for hours on end.
For example, Daniel Chun, owner of BoyToys hobby store in Mississauga, said his store's Little Scientist workshops and summer camp program have been growing every year.
A true believer in the power of invention, Chun's slogan for BoyToys is "Today's hobby makes future engineers."
"Parents want youth to learn and have fun, rather than having them staying at home glued to their computers or gaming consoles," he said.
"The user-friendliness of the robotic kits out there now gives more of them the tools to create their own inventions."
When one of those parents considers the future possibilities for her sons, Cheryl Ovas said she has no problems having little robots crawling all over the floors of the house.
"I'm not sure where all this will go, but it's definitely making them think."
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