A few weeks back I took my Robotics team to see one of the coolest robots. It has ‘eyes’ and a brain, and it knows enough to get itself out of trouble, even when its handlers are not in the next room —let’s say 34 million miles away! This was the Mars Rover, at the Mars Space Facility at Arizona State University.
The purpose of the visit was to get students to start thinking of technology as something much bigger than the gadgets they tend to get exposed to. To many 4th and 5th graders a computer is a box with a screen. A remote control is a piece of plastic with buttons. And a robot tends to be thought of as an anthropomorphic device that takes orders.
Is our education system to blame?
Perhaps our society has to face up to the bigger challenges facing young people today. Challenges that may not be solved just because these kids become savvy using an iPhone app. Or being able to define the Pythogorean theorem.
Apart form a tour of the Rover, the students got to meet the NASA robotics team who demonstrated the simple-looking but complicated bots they are working on, using PVC pipes, , scrap metal, Styrofoam, and wire. Twenty years from now one of these could be making the big step to solve unsolvable water, energy or safety issues back here on earth. I think my students walked away from there realizing that robotics is more science than science fiction.
They took notes! They asked a lot of questions!
One of them, a budding designer, is making very complex sketches of his ideal robot. Someday all children will…
I will leave that sentence unfinished –for now.
But as adults, there’s work to be done. Recently President Obama addressed students at the Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center. He was imploring students to think like the future inventors and entrepreneurs. This country is sorely lacking them.
“Now, imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched …or flexible display soldiers …or a car that drives itself. Imagine how many workers and businesses and consumers would prosper from those breakthroughs.”
Those things aren’t science fiction, he noted. It is the “kind of adventurous, pioneering spirit that we need right now.”
My class of 14 students is relatively small. We do not have the funds of a Carnegie Mellon. But we have big ideas. Wide-open eyes. Some of them are already programming the Lego NXT brick to perform some neat manoeuvres.