La Trobe University’s Dr Simon Egerton with his open-source robot creations. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
New, open-source technologies are making robotics a more accessible subject for disadvantaged schools, educators have said.
According to Australia’s national school curriculum, students must already have experimented with simple, programmable devices like robots after just three years of primary school.
By the time they reach years 7 and 8, the curriculum requires students to show they can “program a robot to recognise particular objects and to treat them differently, for example choose objects based on colour”.
But STEM learning specialist Angus McPherson, of Maryborough Education Centre in Victoria, said that, in the past, the price of robotics equipment was a barrier that schools, such as his, had struggled to overcome.
Maryborough Education Centre is located in the Central Goldfields shire, Victoria’s most socio-economically disadvantaged local government area.
Almost two-thirds of the school’s student population are considered to be among the most disadvantaged 25 per cent of learners in the country, according to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.
“There are some select schools across the state that have been tinkering with these things for a few years, but it’s only in the last two years that it’s cheap enough and accessible enough that we can be working with this type of equipment,” Mr McPherson said.
“You have to be able to allow for the cost of the robot, and a bit extra for breakages.”
Charlotte Hazeldine and her friends, Makayla Stork and Georgie Milburn, have been working on putting together a robot they call ‘Fred’. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
The school has recently used a Victorian Government grant to purchase several do-it-yourself robotics kits, made entirely from components that can be bought on the open market — not from a robot manufacturer.
Step-by-step assembly instructions can be downloaded online for free.
All together, the parts for one robot cost about $100. The price is less again if the body of the robot is constructed from cardboard or another commonly found material.
Maryborough Education Centre students get to work on robots during the science classes. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
Standing at about 20 centimetres tall with an LED face and two movable arms, the humanoid design is the brainchild of La Trobe University’s deputy head of Computer Science, Dr Simon Egerton.
“This project was specifically designed to be low cost, specifically designed to make this technology accessible right across the board to all sectors,” Dr Egerton said.
“It’s really about pulling together open-source technology — distributed manufacturing in the form of 3D printing, open-source technology hardware in the form of Arduino, and open-source software that the kids can get access to and program the robots with.”
Applying skills at home
After two years experimenting with computer hardware at home, 15-year-old student Harry Bartlett has found the transition to robotics easy.
“The benefits of starting early on in doing this is to really help kids understand what’s going to happen in the future,” he said.
“As we move on, we’re having more robots and technological advancements in our lives.
“It’ll help students not be as scared about some things, like the fear of [artificial intelligence].”
Harry Bartlett (right) is applying skills from robotics classes to computer-making. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
Asked whether the rise of robotics made him nervous, Harry said it depended.
“If you just had a robot to help around the house and can think for itself, that really wouldn’t be that threatening,” he said.
“But say if it was a military robot. What if something happens to them and they start going rogue, because no one can really stop it?”
Testing patience and imagination
For Harry’s schoolmate, Charlotte Hazeltine, robotics was an entirely new challenge, one that tested her concentration.
“I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do this, and I’m not a very patient person, so I get frustrated very easily if things aren’t going the way I thought they should,” she said.
“It’s very fiddly, and the hardest thing so far has been screwing all the pieces together.”
Mr McPherson said the frustration was as much a part of the learning process as were the technical skills. It was an experience students wouldn’t have if the school bought pre-built robots to program.
“They’ve got to work out after they’ve made it, why did it or didn’t it work, and then go back and make it again, in the same way an engineer would keep refining and reiterating a design until they’ve made, say, the perfect bridge,” he said.
Friend or foe?
Dr Simon Egerton holds the hand of one of his electronic creations, designed to make robotics an affordable reality for schools. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
Charlotte said she was scared about the potential for artificial intelligence to disrupt the future, but understood that was why she needed to understand new technologies.
“The way the world is progressing and how fast everything is becoming automated, by the time I’m about my parents’ age, the majority of things will be controlled by robots,” she said.
“It seems like it’s so far away, but it’s so close.”
Dr Egerton said the miniature humanoids were an example of the sorts of disruptive technology that these students would confront in their workplaces.
But he promised his robots were benevolent creations.
“You can program it to be social, you can program it to play games with you, you can program it — with some imagination — to be your buddy,” he said.