Category Archives: Robotics

Could robotics’ kids could teach adults some ‘Gracious Professionalism’?

Newsflash: Not all kids are staring at their phones.

Ever walked into a mall and thought the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, watching teenagers ‘socialize?’

I had the opportunity to see another side of kids and technology, at a robotics tournament yesterday. The event is part of the FIRST Lego League events, that challenges young kids to put their minds to robotics. (There are a series of such events going on across the country over the next few weeks.)

Salt River Elementary School, Robotics - Gracious Professionalism

It’s a different lens. You get to peer into the future, watching a bunch of 12-year olds get themselves in and out of a sticky situation, and employ communication skills we wish some grown-ups had. You see them go through all stages: panic, disagreement, leadership and teamwork. When things go awry, they often problem-solve and improvise on the spot. (And there’s not an App in sight!) And best of all, they celebrate each other’s success –even competitors at the next table.

If only Congress would work like this, I thought.

And then it dawned on me. These kids will be the ones on Capitol Hill, someday. Or running our institutions, setting our agendas…

The FIRST Lego League requires that we adults promote what it calls ‘gracious professionalism’ in our teams. (The term was coined by Dr. Woodie Flowers, a professor at MIT), because that is how the grown-up world works. But the reality is, such a brand of professionalism in many facets of business and governance is more the exception than the rule. It’s a winner-takes-all world, we are often reminded.

But here at the FLL level, we teach our students to consider failure as a wonderful learning opportunity, and to not be obsessed by trophies. One of the core values they must exhibit is enlightening:

“What we discover is more important that what we win.”

Then, at the end of the day, the results show up on the large screen. Your heart sinks as you see the wide gap between the team that has mastered every mission, and those that had epic failures as their bot went off track, and wrecked their team’s chance of making it to the State tournament. But they quickly get over that and enjoy the moment.

They’re our gracious professionals in the making. 

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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Robotics


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And then life threw me a lesson plan

For more than a year, I have been making a transition from corporate communications to education. I have been given an opportunity to be a computer teacher at an elementary school in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It’s an amazing time to be joining a profession that’s getting lots of attention. And scrutiny. From the recent schoolteachers’ walkout in Chicago, to the just out Nations Report Card, among others, the story is not exactly cheerful.

Meanwhile, as knowledge acquisition is moving an 120 miles-per-hour, pedagogy is ambling along.  I can see this through the lens of our two children, as new engagement tools emerge, and curricula change. Analog classrooms are trying to adapt to digital natives. Britannica now has an app for the iPad and other tablets. Classrooms are being ‘flipped.’ We can’t continue to do the same old, same old.

If there’s a simple lesson plan for my career, it’s this: push students to the edges. Focusing on ‘core’ areas, but also widen the aperture. Knowledge of ‘computers’ without context of where they are used, is meaningless. Often it’s the topical things we introduce in class that make planned (not canned) lessons relevant. One study last year found that students who did “science-related activities that are not for schoolwork” performed higher.

TO KICK OFF, I re-positioned the computer class as a Technology and Computer Lab, in which students will engage in subjects from space exploration to search engines.

Being the school’s robotics coach helps. This is a program established by the FIRST Lego League. Students can step out of their comfort zone and take risks, even while engaging their math and design skills.

Each day, the lens zooms in and widens…



Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Education, Personal, Robotics, Technology


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Will tablets and smart phones kill conversations?

A few weeks back, I passed a sad tableau of an Asian family: a dad and two sons waiting for Mum outside a Chinese grocery store. All three of them were silently thumbing away on their iPhones. In cars, in waiting rooms, the tablet and the smart phone has become the new baby sitter.

Over the past five years, having reported social media’s many benefits I often have to step back and wonder about what it means to be too much digital.

We have become so used to being ignored while having a conversation with someone with a Blackberry that we sometimes take it for granted.

It’s not just an etiquette problem as some have alerted us to in the past few years. It’s a social problem that will have deeper ramifications -too much ‘media’ perhaps - as we marvel at how connected we are.

It generates caricatures such as this and this.

  • Smart phones don’t automatically make us smarter. (Perfectly captured in that Geico commercial that poses that rhetorical question.)
  • Likewise one more screen in the home won’t make us better informed. While we do see attempts to engage students better using tablets, social media and other digital platforms, parents and educators need to add some caveats. Teaching children media literacy would be a start.

There is a connection between learning to have ‘conversations’ and learning how to learn by deconstructing information presented –a.k.a. discourse analysis. I am planning to connect my Robotics class with a class in Thailand, soon, and have given much thought to the balance of a traditional class with a digital experience where students will talk to each other with and without digital devices. More on this later.

I will leave you with two great pieces :

Enjoy! And do send me your thoughts, comments.


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When Robotics is more science than fiction

A few weeks back I took my Robotics team to see one of the coolest robots. It has ‘eyes’ and a brain, and it knows enough to get itself out of trouble, even when its handlers are not in the next room —let’s say 34 million miles away! This was the Mars Rover, at the  Mars Space Facility at Arizona State University.

The purpose of the visit was to get students to start thinking of technology as something much bigger than the gadgets they tend to get exposed to. To many 4th and 5th graders a computer is a box with a screen. A remote control is a piece of plastic with buttons.  And a robot tends to be thought of as an anthropomorphic device that takes orders.

Is our education system to blame?

Perhaps our society has to face up to the bigger challenges facing young people today. Challenges that may not be solved just because these kids become savvy using an iPhone app. Or being able to define the Pythogorean theorem.

Apart form a tour of the Rover, the students got to meet the NASA robotics team who demonstrated the simple-looking but complicated bots they are working on, using PVC pipes, , scrap metal, Styrofoam, and wire. Twenty years from now one of these could be making the big step to solve unsolvable water, energy or safety issues back here on earth. I think my students walked away from there realizing that robotics is more science than science fiction.

They took notes! They asked a lot of questions!

One of them, a budding designer, is making very complex sketches of his ideal robot.  Someday all children will…

I will leave that sentence unfinished –for now.

But as adults, there’s work to be done. Recently President Obama addressed students at the Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center. He was imploring students to think like the future inventors and  entrepreneurs. This country is sorely lacking them.

“Now, imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched …or flexible display soldiers …or a car that drives itself. Imagine how many workers and businesses and consumers would prosper from those breakthroughs.”

Those things aren’t science fiction, he noted. It is the “kind of adventurous, pioneering spirit that we need right now.”

My class of 14 students is relatively small. We do not have the funds of a Carnegie Mellon. But we have big ideas. Wide-open eyes. Some of them are already programming the Lego NXT brick to perform some neat manoeuvres.

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Posted by on October 29, 2011 in Education, Robotics, Social Media


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Marketing through Robotics and Facebook

This caught my eye this week. A smart move by the promoters behind Ariel, who found a way to get people to play a game of shooting stains (jam, ketchup, chocolate) at items of clothing. The trick was to use Facebook as the interface, and an industrial robot to do the dirty deed.

The other smart move was using a public space such as a train station (Stockholm Central Station) to carry out this live ‘experiment.’

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Posted by on September 18, 2011 in Marketing, Robotics, Social Media


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Tablets, digital media coming to a school near you

I have been covering the intersection of technology and education recently, and have interviewed some amazing people at the forefront of the changing classroom.

One of them was Hans Aagard, senior technologist at Purdue University, Indiana. I was intrigued by that university’s approach –plunging in with a social networking application called Hot Seat. It is being used not just on campus, but in the classroom, while the lecture is in progress.

But yes, we are running into mixed signals.

  • While some teachers get their students to create content for topics that have been poorly covered or badly written in Wikipedia, many schools ban on students using Wikipedia.
  • A 2010 survey found that 62.7 percent of US undergraduates surveyed say they owned an Internet-capable handheld device, but many universities have signs posted outside lecture halls about turning off cell phones and electronic devices.
  • Faculty worry that too many screens in class could be distracting to the student and to others, while some high schools have made tablets and laptops integral to the learning experience.

More on this soon. My article was just published in a Sept-Oct issue of Communication World magazine.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see the subject “What Will School Look Like in 10 Years?” taken up in the New York Times  last week. I was particularly interested in the comment by David Silvernail, dir. at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Education. He would rather schools invest in small amounts of technology …to teach students process skills, not just plunking shiny objects in their backpack and expecting them to automatically become smarter. Is he swimming upstream?

I have to admit I have mixed feelings on this.

I teach a robotics class in elementary school. For the past few classes I have been driving  home the importance of research. Finding solutions to problems they never knew existed.  I send them off to encyclopedias, dictionaries and other print material -on purpose. I could easily get them to log on to computers and search –there are more than 20 PCs in the room! But that would be too easy. I don’t want to hold up a think-outside-the-box mantra for problem solving and stick them in front of a… box!


Robotics Club kicks off at Salt River Elementary

A few months ago I never thought I’d be taking on the mantle of coach of a Robotics club.

Well, that day has come!

Today, we kicked off the first meeting of the Robotics Club at Salt River Elementary School. I’m honored to be working with Dr. Bill Johnson, who could probably build one of these amazing bots (to call it a toy is an insult!) in the dark, with one arm tied behind his back.

For all those who despair about kids today being more taken up by computer games than reading and writing, I have news for you.

Salt River Elementary School, Team TitansLast year’s school team, ‘The Titans,’ (students between the ages of 9 and 11) researched the basic conditions and consequence of diabetes, then proceeded to build a robot using mathematical calculations to send it off on a ‘mission’ to solve the problem. They were so good at it and their mission was so well thought out, that they went on to represent the school at the world championships in St. Louis, Missouri.

Care to know more about this? Check out this story.  ASU also featured it here.

Today, we showed parents what humans could do to robots. I talked of the several robots we have taken for granted. Yes, you may have heard of HAL and Roomba.

But not many people have heard of Jason (doing oceanographic studies) DaVinci (performing robotic heart surgery, left), Predator (the drone, of course), Hobo (the fearless robots that disarms explosives),  Dante II (the 990 pound, eight-legged robot built to monitor volcanoes), Kurt (the sewer inspector in Germany).

But more importantly than what humans do to robots is what robots do to humans -the interdisciplinary field of robotics helps us step outside our boundaries, and rethink what seemed impossible.

Here’s one of the smart robots that Dr. Johnson has created. It responds to sound and touch. But, as he notes, that’s only scratching the surface of what these kids are capable of doing.



Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Arizona, Education, Robotics, Social Media


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