A combination of the maker movement and robotics is preparing children for a future in which innovation and creativity will be more important than ever.
Research from the DevTech group at Tufts University shows that robotics is an effective way for children as young as four years old to get experience in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics as well as programming and computer science. The maker movement is inspiring children to tinker-to-learn. It encourages them to be creators of technology rather than just consumers of it.
There are many robotics platforms that children can get started with for their inventions and playful learning of fundamental STEM concepts. Examples of robotics and DIY electronics platforms include Arduino, Lego Mindstorms, Raspberry Pi, Phiro and LittleBits.
For instance, we have helped students learn practical applications of physics by designing and building hovercraft, using child-friendly materials and cheap electronics. They test their creations in a small pool of water to visualize the working of a hovercraft in real-time.
By building miniature hydrogen fuel cell cars, older students learned about clean energy, physics, electrochemistry, electrical circuits and engineering. They learned about aerodynamics by designing and building cars using 3D design software, renewable materials and 3D printed models. We have helped students participate in international competitions such as Destination Zero Carbon where they raced 1:20 scale hydrogen fuel cell drag cars.
Children learn STEM skills by making a hovercraft. (Image: Robotix USA)
Students also worked on home-automation projects to learn about energy conservation. They worked with low-cost Bluetooth beacons connected to smartphones, developing programs that display personal energy use levels. Younger children worked on similar projects using LittleBits to create a smart-device for home security, programming sensors to turn lights on and off.
Such hands-on education programs have instilled in children a passion for STEM subjects and careers. A girl from one of our programs wants to build a smart security device for her orphanage. A student who aspires to become an engineer was motivated by news reports of children dying in car accidents to create a technology that could reduce such accidents. Another student shared his wish to join the army and build a robot that will save lives.
The maker movement is inspiring the creation of robotic platforms that are simple, open source and affordable. Such platforms can help millions of students globally express themselves and solve real-world problems. Simplified robotics learning tools will lower barriers for educators, allowing children to teach themselves.
--Deepti Rao Suchindran is the CEO of Robotix USA, a robotics education company. She co-founded a social initiative called Indian Girls Code that offers free coding and robotics education programs to underprivileged girls.