Is Educational Robotics The Future?
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Using Robots In Education

Italy was chosen to investigate new learning approaches for the industrial world. This nation has a system for teaching educational robotics in schools to prepare learners for dealing with intelligent machines (robots). Technology increasingly carries out routine human tasks, for example, medical diagnostics, crime analysis, and data gathering for research purposes.

These activities have taken up to 75% of our time, according to time and motion experts. So now we have the opportunity to concentrate on issues that require superb judgment and problem-solving capacity. The old Roman Grammar, Oratory, and Rhetoric schools focused on speaking to facilitate high-level creative thinking, which still predominates in Italian learning and assessment processes. In a global world, with collaboration increasing to deal with complex situations, the value for effective communication is vital to assist personal development and cooperation (Sage, R. 2000, Sage, R. & Matteucci, R. 2019).

A curriculum has been designed by Italian engineers and information processing experts to assist personal, practical, and academic abilities through integrated subject projects using robots. These are coded and programed by students to assist total development, targeting initiative, planning, flexibility, dedication, resilience, empathy, and appreciation of other views that are necessary to survive in a rapidly changing world.

Visits took place in North, Mid, and South Italy at schools, universities, and teacher training courses for robotics. National and international competitions, where students present their robotic projects with feedback by a range of experts, were inspirational experiences.

Discussions also took place with educators, academics, chief officers of varying industries, psychologists, therapists, politicians, ambassadors, magistrates, and journalists. All these people emphasized the importance of implementing a personal and practical as well as an academic curriculum focus at all education levels.

They stressed the need for "smarter" personnel, with a greater range of competencies, to cope with higher-level work needs. The teachers said now that technology replaces talk, there was a noticeable increase in speech, language, and thinking problems, affecting both student learning and well-being. Plural societies mean very different linguistic and cognitive levels exist in classrooms. Therefore, communication and intercultural awareness are important to foster in learning situations.

The Robotic Approach

This is taught for 1-2 hours weekly in schools with older students (16-18 yr) having options to develop robot building and programming both in school and through local university programs. They enter projects in national and international Maker Faire competitions, with opportunities to travel to many countries to engage with others from different cultural backgrounds.

Criteria For Student Development

  • Personal competencies: communication, cooperation, collaboration—sharing ideas for problem-solving, inventing, and constructing in group teams. More talk is more thought!
  • Subject knowledge: language sciences, mathematics, history, geography, literature, philosophy, art, music, drama, design, computing, etc. are all introduced in an integrated thematic project chosen by students and staff that is relevant for their context, learning interests, and objectives.

Project Implementation

Groups of 4-5 students agree on their project direction with parts assembled and then present to others in the class/wider school population. This allows a greater range of knowledge, views, and attitudes to be exposed in a time period, demonstrating the use of various approaches to achieve goals. The method allows for observation and coaching by teachers and peers, which students say brings better learning than whole-class teaching. It is practice for older students in schools to act as teachers for younger ones, helping them to learn how to code, program, and use robots for learning tasks. Students enjoy this opportunity to control learning and share expertise. Now that robots are available for under 20 euros, they provide a cheap tool to enhance learning.

The 4 Fs Of Project Development

  • Facilitate: involve and engage all students actively in ways that suit ability and interest
  • Fun: produce a playful, positive, happy atmosphere that encourages effective communication
  • Feature: use real-life situations for developing values, attitudes, and understanding
  • Flow: produce experiences that match abilities to challenges

Lesson Structure

  • Context: explain aims, objectives, processes, and outcomes—the Why, What, When, and How of events
  • Connection: use a communicative cross-modal input—sound, sight, action
  • Contemplation: share ideas/feelings/views for planning, action, and completion
  • Comment: review, reflect, refine and adjust for future activities

Robot Projects In School Practice

Example 1

Scenario: The Pinocchio Story about Geppetto, a woodcarver whose model of a character, Pinocchio, comes alive and has many adventures (age level 6+)

Aim: To use the story for personal, practical and across subject learning

Tasks: Students make Pinocchio models (20cm tall) with their parents at home. They paint scenes from the book at school and assemble these to form a large floor square.

Action: 

Use 1: Teaching non-verbal communication

A robot is coded to move in different directions over the squares—programmed to teach non-verbal communication. A player throws a large dice with the binary code 0 & 1 on the sides. If 0 is thrown, no action is taken but if 1 appears, the robot is programmed to move to the nearest red disc (scattered over the floor square) by a player pressing the correct button/s. The disc has a scenario and instruction on the reverse side for the player to respond.

    • Example 1: A wooden model in Geppetto's workshop speaks and you are surprised. How would you look?
    • Example 2: In Geppetto's house, Pinocchio is feeling hungry. How would he look? 
    • Example 3: Pinocchio has fallen over and is annoyed. How does he show this?

The game continues with each group member taking turns until the story route is completed. This focuses on non-verbal behavior within different story situations. Research shows non-verbal behavior conveys around 97% of the effective message in talk exchanges, so it is important to highlight this aspect in developing awareness of communication use (Mehrabian, 1972).

Use 2: Teaching oracy into literacy

The Pinocchio figures are photographed onto cards and scattered across a large multi-square board. The robot is coded to move in different directions and programmed by each player to walk to a character image. One player then starts a story. The group takes turns, building the story as the robot moves to all the characters. This is then written as a record by students and read to the class by each one taking turns to present the different sections of the story. In a 30-minute lesson, a group created Pinnochio Lies—the moral: if you start lying, you many never stop!

Example 2

Scenario: A Pilgrim's Journey: Rome to Santiago Compostela (senior students 11+)

Aim: To plan a journey through 3 countries, introducing the language, culture, customs, history, art, architecture and landscape of the different regions

Tasks: From a route map researched on the internet, each group of 4 in a class decides on a place and researches this for interesting places to visit. The groups collaborate on a storyboard, developing characters to meet up and question an ancient pilgrim. One group chose Chartres Cathedral, programming a robot to ask the pilgrim: "Why does the cathedral have so many high windows?" Answer: "Gothic architecture was built tall to be nearer heaven and the divine presence."

Action: Groups prepare their journey sequence with conversations along the way, using the computer program—Scratch—to gather images. The sequences are assembled to present the pilgrimage and made into a film for public presentation at a school event. During the journey to Santiago, the students programmed different language use in conversation according to the country they were crossing. They spoke Spanish in Spain and French in Chartres. This means the students ask questions in different languages to the old pilgrim who was leading the group.

Review: What has been learned? What went well? What could be adjusted?

Students were interviewed for their comments on the Education for Robotics program. Their views are presented below:

  • Learning can be enjoyable and fun, especially when we can control it
  • Communication varies across contexts—awareness through activities avoids misunderstandings
  • Talking together produces better thinking, ideas, actions, and results
  • The story approach teaches coping with others, flexibility, and open-mindedness
  • Tasks help imagination and problem-solving from story difficulties presented
  • Encourages attention and concentration with group control of the process
  • Observing others helps to reflect and develop ideas to improve performance
  • We learn much more from friends expressing their ideas but teachers are necessary to expand on this knowledge

There was surprise at how aware these students (age 14) were of what they had gained from this learning activity. Teachers direct them to learning outcomes, giving confidence by increasing observation, and thinking using relevant, interesting materials.

Conclusion

This method is powerful and allows students to develop project-based learning in a collaborative way that utilizes all the skills of a group. By using robots, the competencies to code and program become second nature. In an Italian mountain town school, students interviewed local community officials and developed ideas to solve local problems. One of these was a park counter, to calculate numbers of people moving through, for assessing use. A challenge was people might be accompanied by a dog, so the program had to adjust for human height.

The emphasis is on the whole development of students and assists resilience, flexibility, and problem-solving. This is the future: students designing their own learning activities with teachers acting as coaches and supporters. Therefore, when these students enter employment they will have achieved the transferable abilities required: listening with understanding, empathy, communicating clearly informally (chat) and formally (narrative talk), flexible thinking, metacognition, creativity, persistence, and self-management. Now that robots are common, the need to widen knowledge, communicate with others, share and create ideas, refine social capital, and respect different cultures and beliefs is crucial in today's plural societies.

The Education for Robotics program has been well established over the last 20 years in Italy with Schools of Robotics attached to universities in the regions, offering teacher training and support. Projects are underpinned with the belief that all things are possible. There is a national drive to improve collaborative work. The 2020 OECD Report has endorsed this Italian model as one that others should follow.

Italian universities run courses for school students which count toward their final leaving certificate. For example, the engineering faculty at La Sapienza University, Rome, runs a 60-hour course for students (16-18) with 8 meetings. During these, the students build a robot with a focus on developing coding and programming abilities for a relevant purpose. The faculty also runs sessions in schools, at their request, using a humanoid robot programmed by Ph.D. students to support learning. This is useful for providing extra input for learning languages or reinforcing subject knowledge.

3 Reasons Robot Teaching Tools Are Gaining Popularity

Robots, therefore, act as additional support for teachers, freeing them to attend to individual learner needs and staff-student well-being. Mental health problems are now more common in a world dominated by media and increasing human expectations. Therefore, robot teaching tools are gaining popularity in teaching for 3 major reasons:

  1. All mundane jobs are rapidly being taken over by intelligent machines so the traditional educational aim to produce compliant citizens for routine work is redundant. Jobs now require higher-level creative thinking, broader knowledge, and communicative collaboration for complex problem-solving.
  2. Students must learn to code and program these machines which are now as important as learning the 3Rs.
  3. Robot structured tasks for learners enable them to work with minimal adult input to increase student control over learning and a sense of achievement and well-being.

Professor Dottaire Riccarda Matteucci from Rome was also a co-coordinator with the present author of a study of new approaches to education that is available in the books: "Speechless: Issues of Education" and "How World Events are Changing Education"—now in press. 

References:

  • Mehrabian, A. (1972) Non-verbal Communication. New York: Aldine Atherton
  • Sage, R. (2000) Class Talk: Successful Learning through Effective Communication
  • Sage, R. & Matteucci, R (2019) The Robots are Here: Learning to Live with Them. London: Legend Press
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