Jan 15 2008

Adding a Fourth "R"

“We cannot afford to fail in preparing our students for the jobs of tomorrow — jobs that will require skills in math, science and engineering,” said Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri recently. While the sentiment is not new, the topic being addressed might surprise you. Certainly, in this day and age of The World Is Flat, teachers, parents, students and even governors are scrambling to create a system that will equip graduates with the skills necessary for today’s global economy. But Carcieri wasn’t discussing a radically new approach to teaching or a one-to-one initiative. He was announcing a $140,000 program that will put robots in every high school in his state and support the formation of robotics teams at each of the schools to compete against other schools in the state, region and nation.

This example is just the latest in the trend to move robotics into schools across the country. Currently there are about 10,000 robotics teams operating in U.S. schools. More than 100,000 students are participating on these robotics teams, and the number is growing rapidly.

Why? Because robots are cool. They are complicated, they require computers and they can break things. They are also found in some very impressive places, like at the bottom of the ocean exploring black smokers, the chimneylike structures made up of sulfur-bearing minerals from beneath the Earth’s crust. Robots can be found exploring Mars (rovers Spirit and Opportunity) or in combat in Iraq (Predators and PackBots). Because they are becoming less expensive, robots are also being found in more classrooms. For about $250, students can create a robot that can communicate over the Internet, be programmed to complete many tasks, receive feedback from a wide array of sensors and have body parts that lift, push or smash.

From Clubs to Classrooms

Teachers from industrial technology, science, math and even English and social studies lead robotic teams. As more teachers realize how the draw of robotics can motivate students to achieve, the subject is moving from after school to during school.

Robotics classes are not traditional. The science process is the scientific method. The math is problem solving. The robotics and engineering are design, which is close to both science and math, yet different. Assessment in a design class is different as well. It’s usually a competition that determines not only who gets the “A” but also whose creation is best.

Students enjoy the practical nature of these classes. They often report that they finally see the relevance of the math and science taught in their other classes.

This summer, a program in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, where the dropout rate exceeds 60 percent, offered a robotics course to prepare middle school students for algebra. A different science and technology prep class had been offered the previous summer. In both years, 200 students signed up. In the first year, only five completed the four-week program; in the year with robotics, more than 190 students finished the course.

The robotics wave is growing, adding clubs, moving club activities into classrooms and showing measurable results in student achievement. It may be time for the three Rs to make way for a fourth.

Small is Better

For those who worry that their electronic devices will soon disappear, consider the latest innovation from Dartmouth College researchers. The world’s smallest, untethered controllable robot is about the width of a human hair. The microbot is 60 micro­meters by 250 micro­meters (one micrometer is one thousandth of a millimeter) and integrates power, locomotion, communication and a controllable steering system.

“When we say ‘controllable,’ it means you can drive it wherever you want to go. [It] crawls like a silk inchworm, making tens of thousands of 10- nanometer steps every second,” says lead researcher Bruce Donald.

Future uses may include fixing integrated circuits or exploring hazardous environments.

Source: Dartmouth College


One of the more interesting robotic competitions — the annual Fire-Fighting Home Robot contest — occurs at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Teams and individuals from around the globe vie to build a computer-controlled robot that can navigate the floor plan of a small house, find a candle and extinguish it. Last year’s winner was a student from Shanghai Jianping West Middle School in China.