More robots required


This week seems to be a week of robots news. Firstly we have the European Commission calling for more robots to be developed in the EU so that we do not fall too far behind Japan. Secondly we have the University of Essex releasing its robotic fish into the London Aquarium. Finally we have the start of the DARPA Grand Challenge a 240km race across desert for autonomous vehicles.

Robotics is an amazingly interesting area of science and technology as it brings SF ideas into reality but also because the challenge of getting something you have built to do what you want it to do is unmatched by any other such area. SETPOINT Wales is doing its bit to generate an interest in robotics in young people.

Many companies that use robots in their production lines are unable to find suitable people to maintain their machines. To build or repair robots you need to understand both how they were built (engineering) and how they are controlled (programming). These two subjects are intertwined in robotics. There are many engineers who can fix the physical side of the robots nd there are many thousands of computer programmers who could update that part of the robot. But there are almost no people with an understanding of both.

Robotics has two unique characteristics that make it a great educational tool. Firstly, it is the only topic covered in the school curriculum that allows students to learn from their mistakes immediately. In all other subjects students will be set a task, they will do it and get feedback on it and then the class will move on to the next task. In robotics you have to keep adapting and altering your robot and its program to achieve the task.

Secondly, robotics is able to engage students with education as they can see a relevance of some of the other knowledge they have learnt. Over the summer, SETPOINT Wales ran some two-day workshops for Cardiff Council’s Summer Festival of Learning. One of the students that attended had been to 45 miuntes of school in the entire first half of the summer term. Over the second half of the term, a structured program had moved him from 45 minutes a week to 2 hours a day. We were unaware of this when we ran the course and, when a staff member asked us how this pupil got on we were happy to tel them that the boy had concentrated throughout the course, had excellent soldering skills and helped others around him when they were having problems. Last week, I attended the presentation ceremony for the Festival and learnt that this pupil has not missed a lesson this year! Hopefully we have played a part in getting this pupil back into education.

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