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I have been teaching robotics to school children for many years, and when people learn about my special job/interest, usually one or more of the following question will turn up: Why robotics?
The rise of robotics as a co-curricular activity and enrichment program in Singapore happened sometime when we crossed over into the new millennia. Admittedly, robotics is a relatively new type of enrichment in comparison to the Big Four (Piano, Abacus & Mental Arithmetic, Ballet, Speech & Drama). Thus it is not surprising that many parents have not heard about robotics, and are not sure what it entails.
The following is my personal take on why robotics enrichment is different, and that every kid should have a chance to be exposed to it at least once in their lives.
1. Trains you to handle complex problem sets
To start off, robotics as a field is a very wide domain, it usually involves the hardware (the mechanical design, the motors, sensors and miscellaneous blings blings that you will find on a robot), the semi hardware (the electronics that stands in the gap between your power supply, your code, and your hardware), and the software (the code that governs robot behaviour and “intelligence”).DEW Robotics: Bartholomew Stair Climbing Robot
Without going too much into technical details, imagine that we need to create a robot to climb a flight of stairs. This is not an arbitrary problem; the robot stair climbing problem has been tackled by many hobbyists, professionals and universities around the world (http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=stair+climbing+robot). We will usually start from the hardware design: How do we get the robot from one step up to the next? How many motors do we need? How much power do we need? What sensors should we use to determine if the robot has reached the top? We will also have to consider the electronics and the software: What type of board and processors should we use? How many input and outputs ports do we need? Is my program robust enough to handle exception events (such as a stair step that is missing)?
As you can see a “simple” problem such as climbing a flight of stairs involves many different components that have to fit together into a cohesive solution. Change one aspect of the robot and you will have to consider the implications on the entire solution.
Doing robotics does not mean that you will become an engineer, but doing robotics means that you ought to be a very good problem solver.
For young kids, we usually train them using LEGO® Mindstorms robotics. The wonderful people at LEGO® have put together a collection of robotics kits and parts for children (and the young at heart) to have first-hand experience in robotics. Some aspects such as the electronics and hardware components are built already, allowing kids to focus on the problem solving and programming portion without having to delve too much into the technical side of things.
2. Learn Coding From Young
It may seem cliché to say that the world is getting more computerized each passing day. That is the reality but we have not fully grasped that yet.
Increasingly we are seeing tech startups replace brick and mortar businesses because of the blazing speed at which the former can scale. People who work in the finance and economics sector have to deal with and process more data than ever before. Marketing used to be all about big media, but marketers nowadays are keenly involved in big data, app development, and user behaviour tracking.
Jack Dorsey is a relentless entrepreneur whom I admire tremendously. He created Twitter, and later on, Square (a mobile payment processing company). On programming, he says:
I think that great programming is not all that dissimilar to great art. Once you start thinking in concepts of programming it makes you a better person…as does learning a foreign language, as does learning math, as does learning how to read.
If you have not watched this video, let Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and other tech and business giants share their heart about programming.
The rise of China necessitates the learning of the Mandarin language, likewise the spread of computers. In this day and age, it is not sufficient to be bilingual in the linguistic sense, but to be bilingual in the computer-human sense.
Robotics is a great way to pick up programming skills. It is not so much about which programming language you learnt (at the basic level, most programming languages share similar structural elements), but rather to be able to understand programming logic and structure. I did not do a computer science degree at university; most of what my programming skills are learnt through my days in robotics, and a lot of self learning on the internet. In my day job as a financial derivatives trader, I have to use programming tools to abstract and analyse data, and to manage my trades. If the ability to code is not likely to diminish in value in the next ten years, why not start learning from young?
3. Builds up spatial imagination skills
This point reminds me of a primary school class that I taught in the beginning of the year. It was a LEGO robotics introductory program spread out over 10 sessions for selected P3 and P4 students of the school. Most of these students did not have any prior experience with what I was teaching and were naturally excited to get their hands on LEGO pieces.
On the second session, I showed the students step by step construction instructions on the projector screen, much like the kind of instructions that comes with every LEGO set. As always my favourite part came when the students finished 80% of the robot, and I turned off the screen. I wanted them to finish the remaining 20% on their own, which is to attach a supporting wheel. After 10 minutes I did my rounds and some of the students were really stuck. They had no idea what to do and which components to use. However there were some who were not afraid of making mistakes, who had a rough idea what they had to build and got it eventually after trying a few times.
This is by no means a scientific study on creativity in children but I always remember this story as a lesson on guided learning and cultivating creativity in a classroom setting. There is no denying that kids need to play to develop important cognitive, motor, and social skills. However LEGO robotics is more like an open ended toy that allows the user to stretch his engineering and creativity limits. The following video demonstrates engineering and creativity through LEGO.
One of the most important skills which many students develop at the end of the 10 sessions is spatial imagination. Subsequently we gave them more and more open ended requirements/problems to tackle, and less of guided steps to help them. They have to do the structural and mechanical design in their head, and to think a few steps ahead how their construct will look like after they added some parts. This may seem like a small thing, but with critical thinking and problem solving becoming a much more valuable skill than raw information, imagination is a skill that can, and has to be trained.