What is robotics? Is it important for children to be exposed to robotics? How will they benefit from this? At what age should children learn about robotics? Should it be introduced only to children who are really interested, or to everyone?
When I started with the idea of a STEM-based activity centre, robotics was obviously at the back of my mind as something I wanted to introduce soon. However, I didn’t know what it really was till I trained myself with LEGO WeDo and Mindstorms. WeDo was cool, but Mindstorms became addictive. I kept wanting to build more structures and challenge myself to more complicated mechanisms and programs. It wasn’t just about building and coding, but about recreating real life objects into simple experiential learning toys – something that I didn’t have at all when I grew up.
Robotics was something every parents around me was interested in. After several conversations, though, I realized that not everyone understood what it really is. From our experiences of teaching children robotics, we have put together a brief summary of why we think this is something every parent should seriously consider for their children. Robotics is no more just a ‘good-to-have’ extracurricular activity; it equips children with skills important for life regardless of career choice. It’s really the perfect way for children to experience what goes behind creating the technology they use!
The word “robot” conjures up the image of a human-like electronic person with a face, voice, arms and legs. Although these Hollywood figures are one type of robot, a robot is simply a mechanical device that replaces human effort. There are three essential parts to a robot: (1) the ability to sense things just like we do – touch sensors, chemical sensors, pressure sensors, colour sensors, etc., (2) the ability to process the information like our brain does, (i.e. programmable) and (3) the ability to move or react as the brain tells us to. Robots need the ability to follow programmed instructions and not just be controlled remotely, differentiating them from algorithms and automated systems like chatbots.
Why is Robotics important for children to learn?
1. It’s fun – Learn while you play
At an introductory robotics session, three 6-year old children were building a race car with LEGO WeDo. Available in the set were tyres of different sizes and type which would impact the speed of the car. In addition to programming the car with a motion sensor, the children had to figure out which tyres would make the car go faster.
Hear the word cars and kids want to race them – and that’s just what they did. As they competed to make their car win, they ended up learning about effect of size and type of tyres on speed and also learned how to program a winning car. Kids ended up learning a lot, while in their heads they were just playing.
2. Problem solving skills
On the last day of our 5 day summer camp, children were asked to build their own sumo wrestler robots; the goal wasn’t just to stay within the ring, but to try and push the other one out or topple it over. This problem-based learning method fosters integration and application of knowledge, and as mentioned above, nothing is without a huge fun element.
So here, it wasn’t about building a moving robot, but one that was stable and also had arms to knock over the opponent. Making stable robots with ‘weapons’ helped hone the building skills they had acquired during the camp, and the challenge of building without instructions helped bring out their creativity.
3. Programming enhances the ability to think logically – an important life skill
Much unlike our childhood, our children are growing up in a world where digital technology like cell phones, computers and even toys is deeply embedded in their daily lives. It is one thing to know how to use these, but another to know the logic behind them. Coding helps kids understand the ‘magic’ behind everyday technology.
Let’s go back to the same robotic car we talked about earlier. Using the motion sensor, children were supposed to program the car to make it move only when the barrier was lifted, and the car had to stop if it sensed an approaching obstacle. This step by step programming helps children develop the ability to think logically. As programs get more complex, such as automatic maze solver with ultrasonic sensors, children’s ability to put series of simultaneous steps together develops further.
At what age should one introduce robotics to children?
Introducing children to robotics at an early age creates a fascination for the subject – it’s just fun for them to see a car which can be programmed and controlled through an iPad. As they get older, at around the age of 6 years, they can be introduced to the programming. Their minds are ready to put simple steps together. Eventually, complexity increases – there are multiple motors, multiple sensors and more complex programming. What is important is that they should be able to relate to the objects they are building. Building and programming objects like a vending machine or maze solver robot gives them immense sense of satisfaction and achievement.