When you have spent too many years writing boring math formulas for bored students, it’s a great change when you start teaching robotics. Once a week, when I enter my classroom carrying my 10 PoppyErgoJr, I can’t help feeling like Santa Claus. Let’s face the truth: the sparkles I see in my student’s eyes never appear when I talk about variation functions.
But wait a minute: “we’re here to learn, not to play”. Did I say that? Surely I did. I apologize, I must have said that once or twice.
Of course it’s wrong. We’re here to play. It’s only because we want to play that we have to learn. It’s only because you want to go further on the game you’re creating that you have to improve your coding skills.
Code-aware human beings
Coding skills. Learn to code. That’s the main reason my robots are in my classroom. There’s no debate anymore about the fact that kids must learn to code. As we keep on telling their parents, we don’t want to train them as professionnel programmers (I mean, not all of them), we just want them to become code-aware-human-beings. Everyone now agrees that every child should know the basics of code. And we plan to deliver certificates for these basic skills, kind of swimming certificates in the numeric ocean they’re living in.
But let’s talk about robots. There’s something at stake with robots that doesn’t appear in traditional coding lessons. Robots are tangible. That’s why they are fascinating. They are with us, in our real world. You can’t compare your first ‘Hello world’ program on your screen with your first little 20 degrees motion on the fourth motor of your robot. You don’t believe me? Let me show you.
Two modes, two behaviours, but a single master
The very first time my students manipulate their robots, they’re quite afraid to break them. You have to know that our robots have two modes: the compliant mode, where motors can be moved by hand, and the stiff mode, where they can’t.
In compliant mode, students become kind of physiotherapists: they move gently every part of the robot to put them in the desired position. Thus I often hear them whispering to their robots, kindly calling them by their name (you must have guessed that all my robots have Harry Potter’s characters names).
In stiff mode, things are very different: students don’t touch the robot anymore, the robot is autonomous and is supposed to do what the students told it to do (we essentially use Snap! to command our robots). Then the words I hear become very different, compliments turn into insults…
So you can easily understand why, when visitors come to see my students working with their robot, they’re quite stunned observing my students talking to their robots as if they were alive. Visitors find this strange, my students find this natural. Who’s right?
But let’s go to the point. After a few years of teaching code with robots, I realized that the ability to code is not the most important thing that my students learn.
There’s no magic in robotics
They learn that they are, and will always be, the master of the robot they will maybe work (or live) with. You can always unplug your robot. Terminator is a science fiction movie (well they don’t even know that movie).
They learn that a robot is as stupid as the software developer who pushed the code inside it (and it’s a concept that they often experiment with).
They learn that when you have controlled a single robot, you kind of have controlled every robot. Roboticist once, roboticist forever.
They learn that when we’re afraid about what the future could become, surrounded by robots and their everyday-more-powerful AI, we should not be afraid about the robots themselves. We should only be afraid about the humans behind the robots.
Now, I have to tell you something : I don’t see sparkles in my student’s eyes anymore.
They still love working with their robots, but robots aren’t fascinating for them anymore. And that’s how I know I did a good job. From the moment they realize that there’s no magic in robotics, I know they have made it to the next step. I know they will be able to coop serenely with robots in their future life.
And I know they have learned to be neither afraid, nor fascinated : they have learned to take control.
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