How Robots Are Impacting Education in Europe

News   •   May 31, 2016 10:18 GMT

By Marianne Andersen & Ulla Meyrick May 25, 2016

As education starts to focus more on entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, robots continue to make their way into classrooms. Robots are proving themselves useful, both as a teaching tool and a technology for kids to study.

Rikke Berggreen Paaskesen, a Danish teacher and pedagogical sociologist, is one of the country’s pioneers when it comes to incorporating robots into education. At RoboBusiness Europe, taking place June 1-3 in Odense, Denmark, she is one of a few speakers who will be talking about using robots in education. She sees robotics as a means to fulfilling new learning targets in schools to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

“If pupils are to perform at the highest taxonomic level, which is the level of creating in Bloom’s revised taxonomy, then we need to give them space and opportunity to work creatively,” Paaskesen said. “I see robots in education as a motivational and creative medium to promote a different and more experimental approach to learning.

Paaskesen also has a background in robotics and holds a certificate for building and programming LEGO EV3 robots. She has been working as a manager for Coding Pirates based in Aarhus Denmark, an organization that makes new technology available to kids. The organization sets up tech environments in local communities and invites kids to play and experiment with the purpose of promoting creativity.

Interdisciplinary Teaching with Robots

Paaskesen also cooperates with secondary schools about integrating robotics into the teaching of other subjects. And the new technologies are not just used in the traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, but also in humanities.

“You can teach the philosophy or poetry of Goethe and let the pupils articulate their thoughts and answers through a creative, technological medium,” Paaskesen said. “I have been running day events at a boarding school, working with Mindstorm robots in interdisciplinary projects, including Danish and social sciences. We focus on storytelling in combination with design and the kids are challenged to come up with solutions to issues posed in a fictional frame narrative.”

Rikke starts off giving the kids a small challenge to get them started with the Mindstorms robots. After that they move on to a larger scale project, centered round issues resembling real-life situations:

“I set the scene and the kids are allowed to explore, test and come up with their own answers based on their own interests and skills. Some kids just want to build a model robot and will spend their time doing that, which is fine,” she said. “Others, who may be quicker to master the programming part, may like to experiment with solutions to a complicated, fictive situation, such as saving the citizens of a town from a nuclear threat with a satellite that seeks out bombs and robots that move in to remove them. Or it could be about getting people out of an area hit by an earthquake, using robots to move into dangerous places that people can’t get to.

Paaskesen’s ideas of incorporating robotics into education calls for an interdisciplinary approach, which sounds great in theory, but it can be harder to implement. Teachers in the various subjects are bound to curriculum and often cannot find the time and space to “go off track.” Robots are only slowly finding their place in the school syllabus.

“We still need to see technology as a more integrated part of our everyday lives and be less afraid to use it,” Paaskesen said. “It requires [the schools to be] more flexible and more open to trying out new ways of learning.

Studying Robotics at University

Chris Verhoeven, an associate professor at the Technology University of Delft’s (TU Delft) Electronics Research Laboratory, has played a key role in setting up formal, higher education in robotics. However, he said studying robotics can be tricky.

“Does it mean that you study control algorithms? Are you studying mechatronics, or perhaps sensor fusion? You cannot just dump students in a certain faculty and tell them that if they follow the course here they’ll become a robotics engineer,” Verhoeven said. “The conclusion is that you cannot study robotics, but you can be part of the robotics institute and work with others to create robots.”

To study robotics at TU Delft, you do a three-year bachelor in your discipline, such as mechanical engineering and mathematics. At the same time, you study electronics and embedded systems, which gives you sufficient skills to talk to others about the problems within robotics that you are going to solve. During these three years, students learn to understand the consequences of a system decision on their individual discipline and the consequences of a discipline decision on a system level. If you wish to educate further you can do a fourth year, which Verhoeven calls “the dream year.”

“We call it “the dream year” because you enter a dream team that gets given a mission. During the dream year, students work together on a project, for example to build a solar car or a robotic arm for the ISS, which will actually be put into use,” he said. “And they can stay in the team for another year or two and keep working on the mission, which means that they will have spent the same amount of time as a scientist has spent getting good at a particular discipline plus the extra year to acquire those interdisciplinary skills to work at a high level on robots.”

Disciplinary Students vs. Mission-Driven Students

Verhoeven applies a distinction between what he calls the disciplinary student as opposed to the mission-driven student.

“We make an electro-engineer talk to a mechanical engineer and then we call it interdisciplinary. That’s not what we mean. Working with students you can spot the discipline driven who want to become good at a specific subject. They are different from the mission-driven students who come to university, because they want to build a robot. Often you will find that mission-driven students are team players who find it easy to work together. It is more difficult to make a team of technical discipline driven students.”

The perspectives of educating people via mission-driven projects rather than individual disciplines are wide-ranging and have already proven profitable. During his ten years of working with students in mission-driven projects, Verhoeven has seen numerous examples of students not even completing their courses before they are offered jobs in the robotic industry. Many of them also start their own spin-offs with great success. Verhoeven said teachers ought to be able to spot the mission-driven students when they’re younger:

“They are different to other kids in that they think in concepts and structures. In a language-based school, you tend to label these kids not so smart. So where they really should be encouraged to do technology or natural sciences, they are often advised not to, because teachers think it is going to be too difficult for them. And in languages they will fail because they are dyslexic. I suggest that we educate these kids via mission-driven projects. Make LEGO Mindstorms part of the curriculum, not just part of their leisure time.

“And who knows what will come of it – these kids may grow up and be the ones to build robots that clean our oceans of plastic or robots that will swim in an ocean covered by ice to explore and maybe detect extra-terrestrial life on a remote planet.”