Monday, January 31, 2011

Robots and Teaching

I was interested in robots as soon as the concept became available way back when.....   The idea fascinated me to have a robot that could vacuum a room, answer the door bell, maybe even wash the dinner dishes.  What an idea.  

Later on in the early days of micro-computers I read about a company that would wire your house so it would talk to you.  Now that was something I could get behind in and seriously looked to see what wiring my house would entail.  I even went so far as to try to hook up my Processor Technology 8 K computer to run the furnace for my house, turning the furnace on in the morning and turning it down during the day while we were at work and then turning down the heat for the night.  Cool stuff.  I wrote a program in BASIC to do all that but then realized that we already had a device that could do that called a thermostat.  Why dedicate a three thousand dollar computer to do the job when a hundred dollar device could do it already.  I was learning.

But the idea that a house computer might call me at work and inform me that the south western edge of the roof was leaking and that the house computer had already contacted several roofing companies to get their quotes fascinated me.  Could computers do things in the classroom as well?  Hey, how about a robot that could pick up papers or hand out tests?  As you can see I really didn't have a handle on all of this but still, I was fascinated by technology.

Some years later I talked the Dean of the college into buying for me a Hero 1 robot that could talk, sense different degrees of light, could move a single arm with a claw that could pick up things, could move around the room sensing the walls and furniture, respond to sound.....I forget all the things it could do but it was versatile.  This robot stood about three and a half feet tall when completed.  Yes, that was the catch--you had to put it together yourself, piece by piece and there were thousands of little pieces.

I had a student in one of my undergraduate classes that impressed me--I thought he was going to make a good middle or high school teacher.  He needed a summer job so I found some monies and he started in on building a Hero !.  I helped a little bit but he did the majority of the work.  Each day I'd go by and bit by bit the robot took shape.  It was quite the learning experience for both of us.   

Eventually the Hero 1 robot was completed and it worked! But you needed to program it in machine language.  Not an easy task but we learned.  I put together a small class of education majors who were interested in technology at that time, found them a room and said, "see what you can get it to do."  The group of them succeeded in doing amazing things.  

One evening the custodial staff member opened my office door and turned on the light ready to start cleaning the office when the robot came to life and said, "Please turn off the light and close the door.  I am trying to sleep."  It scared the cleaning guy and he wouldn't go into my office until security had checked out the room.  Security called me at home wondering what they should do.  I had to come up to campus and had to disarm the robot.  Ah, students..

Shortly after we completed the Hero 1 robot and had acquired another one from another department that didn't know quite what to do with it, I was given Petster--a robot cat in gray fur that could move around a room, growl at you if you got in the way, and purr when you petted it.  You could also put it on a leash and "walk" your cat down a hall to different rooms.   Petster had eyes that glowed when turned on and meowed different meows.   It was an ideal pet--no kitty boxes.  I still have Petster after some thirty years.  [you can still goggle Petster and see some web pages and history about the robot]

With the two Hero 1s and Petseter I then turned my small class into developing lesson plans for a grade school class, things we might do in a second to a fifth grade elementary class with the robots.  The students in this undergraduate experimental class did this with delight.  I then divided the class into two teams, maybe four or five to a team.  This I did so as to not overwhelm the elementary classrooms.  I also made arrangements with teachers that I knew that would build on what we might do in their classroom.  

And off we went.  In the first classroom, a second grade, the team first demo'd the two different robots and then suggested that some of the children could come up and learn how to get the robots to do something.  The teacher said the first two rows could start and a fascinating thing happened.  All the boys in the first two rows went to the Hero 1 robots and the girls all went over to Petster, the robot cat.  When I pointed this out to the teacher she rearranged the kids so as to have boys and girls on all the robots equally.  

Each team of college students did this a number of times in several different levels of elementary classes.  My students learned a lot of teaching techniques.  They found out they really needed lesson plans with easy to understand directions for the grade school kids.  They also learned to give the little kids room to explore with the robots.

This was done in the late 1980s and I judged it a success.  We did our presentations in about twenty classrooms near the college.  

But there was one more...triumph to tell you about.  One school where we had done the robotic presentations asked if some of my students would come and demonstrate the robots at an evening PTA meeting.  Several of my students volunteered and we met at the school on the designated evening.  The program was a hit and the parents remarked how their children had come home all excited about robots.  After the meeting I was talking to parents and a little girl came up to me and tugged on the leash to Petster.  She had to be about five or six and just a doll with big eyes.  But she never said a word but just looked at Petster.  So I handed her the leash and said, "Would you like to give my cat a walk?"  A big affirmative nod and off she went.  She went up and down the school hall several times and even went into the kindergarten classroom.  

It was soon time for parents to head home and I went to retrieve Petster.  Oh no, she wasn't going to give Petster up.  I said that Petster had to go home to my family but tears soon came flowing.  She kept shaking her head, "NO."  And finally she said, "I want Petster to come home with me!"  But the shocker was that this little girl had not talked once since coming to school.  Teachers had tried all sorts of techniques but nothing worked.  But Petster was the charm.  She started talking about Petster.  I managed to get Petster back by promising to come back to the Kindergarten and I would let her demonstrate the cat.  I did and she continued to talk after having the cat do what she wanted.  

Interesting true tale.  I still remember that little girl.  Very much like that French girl but very quiet.  But Petster got her to start talking in school.  

I write all this to make an entirely different point.  One reason for my absence on this blog is that I have been reading Sherry Turkle's new book,  Alone Together, published just this month.   Yes, I'm reading it on my Kindle.  She is one of my favorite sociologist (along with Margaret Mead) and is brilliant perceptive as to how we interact with technology.  I highly recommend her latest book.  It is fascinating information and her first chapter is about the interaction of humans and robots, hence my little kindergarten child.  

Maybe we need more robots in class to push the kids to be more human.  What do you think?

Thanks to all those grade school teachers who allowed my students to bring the robots into their class.  As usual, you were magnificent and the follow up lessons were spot on.  

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