Programmed for dance

9th May 2008 at 01:00
The high point of a new touring workshop for schools comes right at the end, when the primary pupils program their robots to dance
The high point of a new touring workshop for schools comes right at the end, when the primary pupils program their robots to dance. This is impressive, says Andrew Gaukel, who delivers the workshop for Generation Science, because an hour earlier most of the kids knew nothing about programming.

"It's a hip-hop dance competition. They've already learnt how to make their robots go forward and back, and turn around. So now we get them in groups to program them to dance. There's no way they can go wrong. We play music and they judge the best dance themselves. It's great fun."

The concept of young children using robots and computers as vehicles for learning and creativity goes back to the 1960s, with the work of Seymour Papert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At that time, technology wasn't advanced enough to realise all his ideas. It still isn't, since these keep developing.

Now in his 80s, and an expert on technology and learning, Professor Papert has been collaborating with toy manufacturer Lego on the Mindstorms line of programmable robots. These embody many of his earlier ideas, and are the technology that Generation Science is using to wow Scottish pupils.

"We take a dozen robots and laptops and get the kids working with them in groups," says Mr Gaukel. "We ask them what robots they know, and they come up with K-9, Robocop and quite often Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, which amazes me because the film's 20 years old."

The robots are robust and simple to use, but packed with sophisticated technology, such as servo-motors and sensors for touch, light, sound and distance, says Simon Gage, director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. "They're great learning tools. The programming language is visual, like picking up pieces of a jigsaw. The kids get it in five minutes, which is what attracted me to the technology," he says. "I've noticed that if children build machines at school, they're often disappointed with how little they can do with them. This is different. It puts no limits on creativity."

www.generationscience.co.ukShowsLego-Mindstorms; http:\\mindstorms.lego.com; www.papert.com.

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