Want to make a robot of cardboard wrapped in tin foil that can twirl, flash lights, and even impersonate the Star Wars robot, R2D2? Or a dragon of paper and popsicle sticks that flaps its wings and hisses? How about building a robotic arm with muscles fashioned from pantyhose? That’s what middle and high school students have been doing, using a new educational robotics kit. Made by two-year-old startup, BirdBrain Technologies, in Pittsburgh, the kit is called Hummingbird and was developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. BirdBrain Technologies is a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) spin-off.
Most educational robotics kits focus on building robots, but Hummingbird treats robotics as one element combined with craft materials and text to communicate thoughts, feelings, or ideas. Students neither have to know how to solder nor program. The kit ($199) consists of a customized control board, lights, sensors, and motors that can be connected to the controller by inserting the leads of parts into plastic clamps on the board. They program their creations on a computer by dragging and dropping icons, so they don’t have to learn computer languages. Teachers whose students have experimented with the kit say it fosters interest in technology among students ages 11 and up.
Seventh and eighth graders in the Allegheny Valley School District analyzed poetry and then created animated scenes for poems using the kit. One team of two girls and two boys portrayed Carl Sandburg’s poem, Grass, a poem about memories of how wars have been forgotten. They used LED lights to indicate on a world map where major battles have been fought. Two motors powered a toy train that carried clay bodies to a cemetery where they were to be buried. One boy commented, “I learned that even though programming looks difficult, it is actually easier than it seems."
At Huntington High School in Huntington, West Virginia, students created kinetic sculptures that use sensors to detect changes in their environment and respond with movement. They’re responsible for life imitating art with that R2D2 replica, and the automated, wing-flapping dragon. Students at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Pittsburgh used the kit to build a “coin monster” for the school’s ancient coin exhibit.
CMU’s CREATE Lab developed the kit as part of its Arts and Bots program, which was launched to explore how to foster interest in technology at the middle school level, particularly among girls. The goal is to get students to become inventors of technology rather than just users. Research Associate Emily Hamner came up with the idea for girls to make robots out of foam and cardboard, feathers, fake jewels, and other arts and crafts materials. Tom Lauwers, the founder of BirdBrain Technologies, worked on hardware, modifying the processor board the lab already had, which was over-engineered for the project. Originally designed for mobile robotics and telepresence, it supported a camera and wireless. But that made it too expensive. After a series of workshops to see what goals, materials, and types of robots girls wanted to make, Hamner and Lauwers found they were excited about making robots that could tell stories, dance, communicate, and interact with people. “We wanted girls to be able to be expressive and creative and make robots not so much with an engineering focus but as an artistic, creative endeavor,” says Hamner.
The programming interface is simple, even for small children. To create expressions on a robot’s face, for example, younger children might vary the colors of the lights, which represent eyes. So for a happy face, a child can drag a slider toward green, and for an angry face he or she could drag the slider towards red eyes. And they can control motors to slant eyebrows up or down.
For older students, it also offers real learning opportunities. At the all-girls Ellis School in Pittsburgh, seniors built models of the human arm and its musculature. “They really had to think about where the muscles could attach,” says their biology teacher Theresa Richards. In the process, they learned how to install motors to move the elbow and wrist, wire them to a control board and write programs to control the movement. Instead of writing code to program their robots, the students clicked on an icon and dragged a slider to indicate what direction and how much a joint should rotate. For the elbow, for example, the girls dragged a slider to the left to 110 so that it would rotate that many degrees counterclockwise. Then they saved the icon. Using another icon, they slid right to number 60, indicating that the wrist should rotate clockwise for 60 degrees, and so on. Once enough moves were saved, they put the icons in whatever sequence they wanted, like a storyboard.
By the end of the project, the girls had built five working robot arms and learned about 10 arm muscles, their actions, and attachment points.
Richards says the most important thing her students learned was the confidence to use many electronic and mechanical components they had never used before. One girl said, “By actually building the robotic arm and piecing together the bones and muscles, I was able to understand the different angles and roles of each respective piece in the robot arm.”
Lauwers says he started BirdBrain Technology to commercialize and make available educational tools coming out of CREATE that will motivate interest in science, technology, engineering, and math among any age student. So what’s wrong with soldering and learning how to program with a computer language? “It’s not that students don’t need to learn how to program,” says Lauwers. “It’s that they don’t need to know how to program to use the kit.” The kit involves some programming, but the interface makes it easy to pick up. They learn basic concepts like looping and “if” statements without realizing they’re learning programming. “That’s how you want educational tools to be,” says Lauwers. “The whole point of the kit is that kids learn naturally. They learn by doing, without necessarily realizing that they’re learning something they will be able to use later on. We don’t want any barriers to someone picking this up and starting to use it.”
BirdBrain has sold 3,000 of its Finch robot, a small robot designed to support an introduction to programming, since February 2011, to high schools and colleges teaching introductory computer science. Based on the experience with Finch, Lauwers hopes to sell one to two thousand Hummingbird kits this year, and expects that to double every few years. It ties into the increasingly popular “maker movement,” the do-it-yourself approach to technology, he says. “We hope the kit allows kids the freedom to create whatever they can imagine,” says Hamner. Says Lauwers, “I hope it inspires thousands of students to go into STEM careers, but I also hope those who don’t still get increased understanding and confidence in using the technology. … If something electronic breaks at home, they can fix, or make it better, or customize it for themselves, even if they’re not engineers.”