Preparing Our Students for Their Robotic Futures

Can STEM education help empower today’s students to use tomorrow’s robotic technology for the public good?

In the future, robots will have superhuman abilities in both the digital and physical worlds, says Illah Nourbakhsh in his new book Robot Futures. They’ll be able to go places we can’t, have minds of their own, and will be better at carrying out online tasks than we are.

It’s National Robotics Week and a good time to ponder what this may mean for our future and the future world our children will inhabit. It’s a good time to pay attention to leaders like Nourbakhsh, who understand the power this new technology will hold in the future and say we should be asking today how we’re going to share our world with these “new creatures.”

Nourbakhsh leads the robotics Master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. For those of us not in the field, his predictions about where robotics technology may take us read like a sci-fi novel – nanobots that could allow us to assume different physical forms, adbots with interactive custom advertisements, the internet that takes a physical form. It’s almost mind blowing to imagine.

But what shape this technology actually will take, he seems to be saying, is up to today’s citizens and students to decide. And educators should be taking note.

As the leader of Carnegie Mellon’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab), Nourbakhsh is at the helm of helping to prepare teachers and students to use technology in socially meaningful ways. As regular readers of Remake Learning know, the folks at CREATE Lab are responsible for some incredible learning opportunities for kids outside of school and partnerships with classroom teachers designed to, according to their website, “empower a technologically fluent generation.”

Their Arts & Bots program, for example, teaches educators to experiment with robotics in their classrooms. Teachers in social studies, chemistry, and language arts classes are integrating CREATE’s Hummingbird Kits into their classrooms. Kids are building robots out of craft materials and animating them using a visual, drag and drop, programming environment.

At The Ellis School for example, high school science teacher Terry Richards used the kit to have her students create robotic arm models to study anatomy. See Barbara’s story on Robotics poetry for more great examples.

National Robotics Week is an educational event that aims to inspire students to pursue careers in robotics and related science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Congress established National Robotics Week in 2010 to raise awareness about robots and their important role in shaping the future of education, industry, and the U.S. economy. You can check out the website for more information, including a map showing events in your area (looks like there are events in almost every state), as well as recommended activities and online resources.

To help celebrate here in Pittsburgh, CMU’s Robotics Institute is hosting some special lectures, project demonstrations, and the annual Mobot (mobile robot) races. And the Carnegie Science Center’s incredible Roboworld exhibit is holding behind-the-scenes tours. You can see robots that shoot baskets and play air hockey and interact via touchscreen, as well as some of the most famous robots of them all—think C-3PO and R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Robby from “Forbidden Planet.”

The National Robotics Week Advisory Council is also debuting videos in a push to inspire the future innovators about STEM subjects. A NASA video featuring Bobak Ferdowsi, NASA’s “Mohawk Guy” and flight director for Mars rover Curiosity, is a reminder of the great power and promise of these technologies. No matter what their chosen field, roboticists say it’s likely today’s students may be working shoulder-to-shoulder with robots in the future.  It’s a reminder of why tomorrow’s leaders need to be technologically fluent and why they need to understand the important ethical implications as well.

“We have invented a new species, part material and part digital,” Nourbakhsh said in a recent op-ed, “that eventually will have superhuman qualities in both worlds at once.”

He predicts some of the ways robotics could strengthen the power of corporations, and further concentrate power in the hands of the few. But he also argues that the robotic future we should try to bring about is one that uses robotics to bring civic and community change, and to empower individuals and communities to make sure technology is used for the public good.

“My hope is that this book will help us envision, discuss and prepare for change, so that people and communities can influence how the robot future unfolds,” Nourbakhsh said.

National Robotics Week’s focus on STEM education is one way to do that. We’ll have more on how educators are using robotics to inspire our future innovators next week.

Published April 09, 2013