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What is Robotics? A Curricular Challenge

This is the third year that I am teaching a course titled "Introduction to Robotics" as part of our regular curriculum at Sonoma Academy. Click here to access our class website. 

The goal of the first few weeks is to answer the question "What is Robotics?" Merriam-Webster defines a "Robot" as...  

...a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects). 

I have always struggled to help students derive their own definition of what a "Robot" is using standard curricular materials. 

The "...moving independently" portion of the definition is not a problem initially, as most systems (Lego Mindstorm, VEX EDR, etc.) feature the ability to autonomously program the robot to perform complex tasks. Not a problem. 

However, when relating a definition of the structure of robotic competitions such as those seen in FRC, and VEX I have always struggled. 

Each of these competitions features a "telops" phase, where a driver is remote controlling the robot to perform a series of tasks in addition to an "auton" phase, where the robot performs the tasks individually. 

Logically explaining to students that remote controlling a system is a branch of robotics is difficult. 

If a human is in control, is the machine still performing a series of complex tasks? 
How do we rationalize the inclusion of a human controller into the field of Robotics? 

This year, I decided to tackle the conceptually challenging topic of rationalizing the role of the "telops" in robotics. Here is what I did for the first two weeks:  

  1. Create remote controlled combat robots using the Finger Tech Viper Kit and a simple transmitter-receiver system. 
  2. After our competition, ask students the following question: If we were to give our combat robots their own "brain" where would we plug it in? (After much discussion, all of the students noted that we would replaced the transmitter-receiver system with a microprocessor). 
  3. Perform a series of lessons on the Arduino Uno system. 
  4. Challenge students to replaced the receive with a programmed Arduino Uno and Ultrasonic sensor capable of controlling their robot to combat autonomously.
  5. When done, pose the following discussion prompt: In the remote controlled robot, what program was controlling the robot? In the autonomous robot, what program was controlling the robot? 

Student responses were fascinating. All students understood that in the Arduino Uno controlled autonomous robot, the program written living on the microprocessor provided commands directly to the motor controllers, guiding the robots movements. 

The remote controlled robot "program" surfaced different, incredibly intriguing responses such as: 

God programmed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot. 

Evolution programmed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot. 

Education programmed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot. 

Amazing questions also emerged: 

Is it possible to program the Arduino to fight more efficiently than the remote controlled robot? 

What happens when the intelligence of the Arduino Uno matches that provide by God, Evolution, etc.? 

Is this related to the Technological Singularity? AI? 

Although this unit lasted longer than I would have liked, the physical motion of removing the transmitter-receiver system, and replacing it with a preprogrammed microprocessor opened up incredible discussion about what it means to be "...moving independently". 

I freaking love teaching.  

cross posted at www.cyclesoflearning.com

Ramsey Musallam teaches science and robotics at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, California, with the aim of fostering inquiry-based learning environments fueled by student curiosity. He presents widely on sparking student curiosity and teaching with technology. Musallam is a Google Certified Teacher, a YouTube Star Teacher, and a Leading Edge Certified Teacher. Watch his TED talk here and read his blog at www.cyclesoflearning.com.