07 Mar 2016
Educational robots

Educational Robots – expensive toys or valuable STEM learning tools?

Whilst installing our recent work at the BETT 2016 education IT conference, we had a chance to look at what was on display in the rest of the show. You couldn’t miss the trend towards all forms of robotics intended for STEM school subjects, whether animated on screen, programmable drones or hands-on Arduino types.

The growth in robotics
This surge in robotics isn’t new; there’s always been some form of robot available for school use (BigTrak anyone?) but they’ve changed from simple command vehicles into complex programmable tools that require pupils to understand the language first in order to operate.

In every sector of domestic and professional life, there are companies who are aiming to make our jobs simpler through robotic technologies. No more so than in the STEM areas, where they are being actively used in the sciences for all kinds of healthcare, technology and mechanical engineering uses.

These industries will continue to grow, so the ‘next’ generation needs to be aware of how to operate and understand these machines, as they could be working alongside, or having to control them in the near future.

Understanding the technology behind the robots
We think that children should be exposed to these technologies as early as possible and have conducted workshops for large tech companies that allow kids to get to grips with tech that can manipulate robotic interfaces, such as Intel Galileo boards and RealSense 3D cameras.

This isn’t just about learning code, though, we feel that schools need to be teaching subjects such as interface design and human computer interaction in order to fully take advantage of the move towards complicated layers of interfaces.

It’s this understanding that will help the next generation stop thinking about robots as toys that they can move around through coded commands and start getting them to consider how and why they move, and what the interface should look and feel like so they become integrated into our everyday lives. When we can get pupils to think like this, then using robots in the classroom will be less of a novelty and more useful for their own professional growth.
Interface design is key for new robot forms
Many of these new robot types are being built with smartphone technology built into them to ensure that they can be operated with the most ubiquitous tech available on the market, after all, who wants yet another remote control?

We predict that designing these interfaces and ensuring that these tools work to their full capacity is going to be vitally important – understanding UX will be paramount to the usability and helpfulness of new robotic devices – indeed like digital interfaces of today the best examples will often be so comfortable to use and instantly understandable that they become completely transparent in use.

Educating schools on robotics is still in its infancy in comparison to many other subjects, but as more and more articles discuss the rise of robotics and more prototypes are trialled for STEM areas, it’s clear that we need a better idea of what operating a robot involves and not just at the mechanical engineering stage.