Technology in itself is not an end-result

This is the story of my first robot, the future of technology education and how to step out of your comfort zone.

I’m horrified. I’m staring at the pile of wires, breadboards, resistors and LEDs laid out on the table in front of me. How could I ever build something that works out of this? I have just, for the first time in my life, received the task to build a moving robot.

I notice a small blue chip in the midst of the breadboards and wires; I soon learn that the blue thing will guide me forward.

The name of the chip is Arduino. Arduino isn’t actually a chip, it’s a small computer that is able to read and interpret signals from different sensors, control lights, motors as well as an array of other electronic components. Almost all electronic devices, at least the once more complicated than a flashlight, host such small computers.

I feel anxious. What if I fail? The wires, the breadboards and the circuit charts all feel alien and odd. I feel embarrassed that I haven’t done anything like this before.

I’m lucky though; the instructions for the construction of the robot are clear. I start by gaffer-taping the Arduino and the breadboard to a fairly robust piece of cardboard, while doing this; I start to think about how to get the tiny computer to react to my commands.

The Arduino has no screen and no keyboard, I have to write the code that I’m going to use on a computer with a program called ArduBlock.

But how will I get the little robot moving? With motors? Of course! I search the table and find small servomotors that I can attach to the cardboard. The servomotor is a component that contains a small DC-motor, a transmission and control electronics.

This thing that I’ve built, is starting to look like something.

I notice that the surface of the Arduino is riddled with tiny ports. This indicates that I need to build a circuit myself, to get the robot moving. There is a pile of red, black and white wires on the table to complete the task. I try to make the connections according to the instructions. I start to doubt myself more and more as I go along. What if I did something wrong during some of the stages? And it’s all ruined!?

I finalize the string of code I want on the computer. I want it to move, first in a straight line and then it’s going to take a 90-degree turn. When it’s done, it will repeat the procedure. I learn that the Arduino uses the string of code that I’ve written, to send pulses of a certain length to the servomotor. According to my commands the servomotor interprets the code and turns 90-degrees.

I upload the code from the computer to the robot using a USB-chord. I’m nervous. I don’t actually believe that the robot will move. This is the first time I’m programming something physical to move. How could it work?

When the robot “wakes up”, accompanied by a friendly whirling sound and starts to race around the room, the smile on my face reaches from ear to ear. Did I just do that?

Only few of us talk about what we should understand about technology

When the robot really started moving, I felt proud. I had sorted out a table full of wires, circuits and components, built a robot with my own hands and really focused on something totally new for an hour.

I had programmed a robot in a way I wanted. The joy I felt was probably comparable with the joy of a child who is able to get the right block in the right box.

The hype around programming is bigger than ever but only few talk about what we really should understand about technology. How to bring the students to the maker-side of technology? How to guide them to become builders of technology, not only users? What is the role of technology in our society right now?

The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture has concluded that programming will become a part of the Finnish national school curriculum in 2016. At the same time, many Finnish schools have just taken their first steps towards digitalization. There are teachers who use electronic material in their class while some teachers don’t even have access to the internet.

It is great that we talk about programming in schools but not all can become the best programmers in the world — and they don’t have to. And merely focusing on programming is a really narrow way to look at this world, what opportunities technology has to offer and how much the world will actually change because of technology.

The development of digitalization and technology unavoidably drives the society in a new direction.

On the flip-side it is clear that understanding technology will put some people in an unequal position. Technology plays a huge part in how our society is developing right now, and it’s obvious that technology will be shaped by those who want to be involved in it.

Especially educated people will benefit from the opportunities that technology provides while less-educated people are in a worse position.

We need to give young people the chance to try and build technology

The education system in Finland now plays a big role: will the system be developed towards the direction where knowledge belongs to everyone? Will everyone have the opportunity to try what it feels like to command a robot? Will we implement maker-culture in Finland?

Experiences with robotics have been truly earth-shaking for me because I have not known anything about the subject before. I have gotten the feeling of success in the technical field, even if I felt that I don’t know anything about the subject before.

But what if I had built my first robot when I was 15? What if I had gotten so excited about it that I would have loved to continue building robots?

Not that many 15-year olds know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. This is why all high school students should get the chance to really touch, build, admire, wonder and feel things around technology.

What if you find something so exciting, intriguing and crazy that you get absolutely excited?

When you give a pen to a kid, you do not say that ”you should learn how to use this in the right way”. A pen is a tool that brings out ideas, thoughts and images that just a moment before were in his or her head. These ideas become more visible and clear with the help of a pen.

The same applies to technology: technology in itself is not the end-result. Technology is a means to an end and with it creativity, enthusiasm and new ideas can get a more concrete form.

Not all high school students have to become programmers nor will they be. But even from building a small robot you can get the greatest feeling that makes it easier to understand what kind of transformation the world is going through right now.

This article was first published in Finnish at www.mehackit.org