Robots provide stimulating learning


4 November 2009 Robots provide stimulating learning There is nothing artificial about the intelligence of participants at this years Hatter Seminar at ORT House, London. For the week-long Seminar, World ORT has brought together senior educators from 10 countries to examine the latest developments in the field of robotics and how they are relevant to the classroom. Alistair Mather, Deputy Chief Education Specialist, South Africa, Iris Lisichki, Shifman Junior High School, Israel, and Franco Antonelli, of ORT Renzo Levi High School, Italy, with the NXT2 equipment newly developed by Lego Mindstorms. The theme, Robotics: Integrating Technology and Learning, is proving to be an engaging one, said Seminar organiser Daniel Tysman, the Head of World ORTs Education Department. Hollywood image of robots tends to be apocalyptic but the reality is that we are not looking at terminators but enablers tools with a wide and exciting range of applications that can be introduced across the school curriculum to motivate students and to develop an understanding of abstract theoretical concepts almost without realising it, Mr Tysman said. The centrepiece of the Seminar is a trip to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in south-west England to see some cutting edge research and development in bio-engineering and intelligent autonomous systems from robots which eat to generate their own electricity to the creation of artificial organisms which are self-configuring, self-healing, self-optimising and self-protecting from hardware and software points of view. However, the lectures and workshops at ORT House are proving to be no less eye-opening to the 18 teachers from the USA, Italy, Israel, Argentina, South Africa, Ukraine, Bulgaria, France and Russia. We had four goals going into this Seminar, Mr Tysman said. To update teachers about the world of robotics, to update them on teaching robotics, to provide a space in which they can share experiences from their respective education systems, and to encourage them to gel as a network which will remain in contact well into the future. We are doing very well on all counts. The week opened with a lecture by Dr Mark Bishop, Professor of Cognitive Computing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Professor Bishop is Chair (elect) of AISB (the UK Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour. I outlined the background to the idea that one day robots will take over the world an idea that has been popularised by Hollywood, Dr Bishop said. I then critiqued the idea. I had some interesting feedback. On the Seminar itself, Dr Bishop added: I think its an excellent idea. Having gained a more reasonable perspective on what robots are and are not capable of, the participants spent the rest of the opening day immersed in a workshop on the building and application of robots for classroom activities. The videoconference workshop was presented by Shelly Brown and Dr Jim Schmidt of the Idaho-based company PCS Edventures, which delivers imaginative, technologically-focused products and services designed to make learning easier, more engaging and more effective. Boris Gurfinkel, a physics and computer science teacher at Megiddo Regional High School in Israel, said: I have been very impressed by the lecturers but I was particularly impressed by the videoconference workshop. It was the first time that I had done something like that, including hands-on experience. We have videoconference equipment at school but its not often used. Now I have been inspired to find ways to use it. Mr Gurfinkel added that his eyes had been opened to the potential of robotics. It is such an interdisciplinary activity: you can use it for pretty much every subject on the curriculum, from physics to social science. I will now incorporate it into my lessons. And, as World ORT Innovation Coordinator at Megiddo, I will share what I have learned with the Innovation Coordinators at the other schools participating in [World ORTs] Kadima Mada programme during our regular meetings. Franco Antonelli, a physics teacher at ORT Renzo Levi High School in Rome, went so far as to describe the workshop as amazing. He was equally impressed by the experiences of fellow ORT teachers in Argentina and Russia. Already in those countries they have been using robotics for years, Mr Antonelli said. The system in Italy is not so flexible but from what I have seen here I think it might be good if introduced robotics into our curriculum. He added: We have seen that robotics has lots of applications children can use robots to enjoy the study of physical processes, to have fun while learning. However, Yossi Israeli, Networking and Communications Consultant for ORT Operations USA, said the curricula in the USA (where he coordinates technology for Jewish day schools) were also quite rigid. I have just learned that robotics can be used with children as young as five years old, Mr Israeli said. I am here to look at integrating robotics into existing curricula but it will be challenging. So far, robotics has been used in extracurricular activities, which is a waste of resources. He added that he was impressed by the presenters: They are professional and well known in the field. Among the other presenters has been Dr Ben Robins, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshires School of Computer Science, who provided a window on to his work developing robots as therapeutic toys to encourage social interaction skills in children with autism. And Dr Ashley Green, Robofesta Research Fellow at the Open University, explained the development of the LEGO Mindstorms RCX and NXT systems. He also talked about embedding robotics in the curriculum with specific reference to the use of the NXT system in science and maths classes. In welcoming the teachers to the Hatter Seminar, World ORT President Emeritus Sir Maurice Hatter placed robotics into the historical context of the various emerging topics in technology education that have been explored in the previous seven Seminars. Although World ORT first examined robotics 25 years ago, the advances made since then merited this closer look. Sir Maurice said: The subject has huge application in industry, but it also has powerful relevance to education. In the classroom, Robotics has the remarkable capacity to improve motivation, to help students to improve their learning capabilities and to develop their creative, problem-solving and team-working skills. World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer added that World ORT strove to ensure that it provided students with relevant and up-to-date education that would benefit them both as future members of the workforce and as citizens of the 21st century. Learning about the wide-ranging subject of robotics fulfils both those aims, providing a comprehensive and solid foundation for those who intend to pursue careers in technology and providing a raft of intellectual skills for all students irrespective of their professional or vocational aspirations, Mr Singer said.