America’s education system is in a state of change. It’s a constant push by innovators, educators and psychologists to find the best teaching practices for the widest range of students. We’ve discovered that some practices don’t quite work, like lectures and ‘chalk and talk,’ which grab the attention of only a fraction of the class. We’re currently experimenting with practices that do work, like organized group activities, which not only teach socialization skills, but also prepare our students for a project-based business world.
But one innovation that clearly excels, and is not going anywhere, is the application of technology in the classroom. The newest generation has grown up on technology, and as educators, it’s always important to meet students on their level. Chalkboards and white boards all over the country are being replaced by projector ‘smart boards,’ with wireless access and pre-planned PowerPoint presentations. Laptop carts allow students to draft and peer-edit their essays in class, and they give students instant access to online research. And now that the majority of students have Internet access either on their phones or in their homes, it’s easier than ever to check grades, submit a late essay or ask a teacher a last-minute question.
But What About Robots?
It sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie — a robot that can help students learn? But this is the exciting, modern world we live in. A new generation of robots are changing the way we look at education and blending it with robotics to give our students the best possible future.
Bee-Bot, for example, is a programmable robot for young children, to help them learn control and direction. It’s got an adorable design — a fat, round bumblebee with big cartoon eyes and a smile — and it has a full range of motion, capable of making left and right turns and remembering a long sequence of moves. A single Bee-Bot can be programmed to navigate a maze or avoid obstacles on the way from point A to point B. Teachers tend to buy a set for their entire class — one per pair, or one per triad — and have the students either create their own routes, or find the most efficient route on a given problem.
Robots For All
But robotics can also be for older students. Sphero is a spherical smart-bot, about the size of a tennis ball, that syncs with a phone or tablet. When the user runs their finger across the touch screen, Sphero will move in a corresponding manner. The bot is highly sensitive — capable of weaving through and navigating an obstacle course, over a distance of 50 feet.
The pedagogical applications for such a robot are numerous. There are obvious mathematical and physics-related problems that one can set up and solve —determining the rate or acceleration of the sphere, or measuring its rate or acceleration on an incline.
But Sphero can also serve as an introduction to coding — a skill that will only become more marketable in the next decade. By downloading the MacroLab app onto a phone or tablet, a student can use basic programming skills to change Sphero’s nature — making it roll in a pre-ordained pattern, or having it change colors within a specific time frame.
Technology is the future of education, but it can have an unfortunate, distancing effect if used incorrectly. There’s still nothing like having someone sitting right in front of you, explaining a concept via modeling. Thus, robots allow for the best of both worlds — we get the benefits of technology’s interconnectivity and scope, combined with the hands-on, kinesthetic learning that allows the lessons to feel ‘real.’ The days of flying cars and hoverboards may still be a few years away, but robots like Sphero and Bee-Bot are very much the present.