Where have all the robots gone?

19th January 2018 at 00:00

It’s not every school pupil who gets to teach a robot to ski in the Italian Alps, but then not every school is like the London Design and Engineering University Technical College (UTC). Established in 2016, the school boasts an array of humanoid and industry robots that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a sci-fi blockbuster.

By putting technology, including robotics, at the heart of its curriculum, the school aims to foster proactive, smart-thinking students who may one day become the captains of our future high-tech industries.

It would be easy to think the London Design and Engineering UTC is an extreme example of more common practice but it is not: robotics is completely absent from many schools, even at a rudimentary level.

A recent Royal Society report described computing education in the UK as “patchy and fragile”, and experts believe that robotics, in particular, is not being taught in a joined-up, effective manner, if indeed it is being taught at all.

What exactly is robotics? Generally speaking, it is the design, construction and operation of robots. And that doesn’t just mean human-like machines but anything mechanical capable of carrying out a series of complex tasks automatically.

That definition includes a vast amount of technology that we currently use in multiple sectors, particularly manufacturing. And our use of robots is only likely to increase.

So what are the barriers that prevent robotics being taught more widely in schools and how can such barriers be overcome? As head of operations for Vex Robotics, a company that provides learning tools to help educators bring robotics to life in the classroom, Paul McKnight is ideally placed to answer these questions.

“One of the challenges we’ve faced as we’ve launched Vex into the UK and into Europe is the different ways that subjects are taught in schools,” he explains.

“In the US, there is the flexibility in the curriculum to drop robotics as a subject into the classroom but there just isn’t the same flexibility in the UK.”

Computing curriculum

That’s not to say that robotics is not covered in the national curriculum. The computing curriculum requires students to write computer programs and collect and analyse data, while in design and technology (D&T), they are required to design their own functional products before eventually applying computing to embed intelligence in those products.

But the fact that robotics is an interdisciplinary subject means that, all too often, it falls between the gaps in the curricula of the various STEM subjects.

Neil Rickus, senior lecturer in computing education at the University of Hertfordshire and founder of Computing Champions, suggests that this makes it difficult to teach robotics in a joined-up way, since elements of it can be covered in computing, D&T, science and maths.

“If you are used to teaching a particular discipline in isolation, those links, depending on timetabling, can be hard to make,” he says.

Robotics can also suffer from the tendency to prioritise the teaching of foundation subjects, according to Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton.

“We have a relentless focus on English and maths at primary and secondary schools, so the other subjects tend to get sidelined to a greater or lesser extent,” he says. “But if schools are serious about ensuring a balanced curriculum and preparing young people for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life, then they will cover computing and D&T very well and they will cover robotics as part of that.”

Cost and a lack of teaching expertise are cited as other barriers to robotics being taught more effectively within mainstream education.

Vex has developed its own robotics curriculum, which is available to schools for free – as is all of its programming software – and it also offers free training for teachers. However, the physical kit does not come cheap, with smaller robotics kits, which serve two to four students, starting at around £220.

McKnight admits that it can be a significant capital expenditure for schools, although he points out that the kits are reusable and can be applied in a number of different subject areas.

He also identifies a fear factor for some teachers in using robotics equipment and a risk that, even if staff receive training in robotics, that knowledge can soon disappear if they are unable to apply it in the classroom.

But McKnight insists that, with a little bit of vision, all of these barriers can be overcome. And he believes that schools that do so will reap the rewards not only by equipping children with transferable skills, such as project and time management, but by helping them apply knowledge gained in other subjects to solving real-life problems.

“What robotics does is it takes the knowledge students learn through subjects like maths and science and it tests that knowledge,” he says.

“A lot of subjects teach to a qualification or an exam, but what robotics does is actually makes them prove they can understand a concept and apply it – whether it’s the maths involved in gear ratios or looking at forces within a lift mechanism.”

Many schools actually start off quite well when it comes to teaching robotics. For example, the ubiquitous Bee-Bot, a small yellow bumblebee that has four buttons – forwards, backwards, left and right – is, for many key stage 1 children, their first experience of programming.

In some schools, this continues into key stage 2 and early key stage 3, where the recent provision of tools such as the BBC’s pocket-sized micro:bit computer to 11- and 12-year-olds is helping address the fact that children were leaving school knowing how to use computers but not how to program them.

Robotics teaching tails off

Beyond this, however, Berry suggests that the teaching of robotics begins to tail off as it gets more complicated.

And while specific vocational training to become, for instance, a robotics engineer, can come much later in a child’s academic career, he believes “an understanding of what a robot is, how a robot works, the relationship between the hardware and the software and the computational thinking, should be part of a rounded education”.

At London Design and Engineering UTC, principal and chief executive Geoffrey Fowler has the advantage of working with children who, by and large, want to pursue a career within design and engineering. He is insistent, however, that the learning framework he has developed could, in principle, be applied in any educational setting if the desire is there.

Engagement through Lego

Students are initially engaged with robotics through Lego before graduating to Vex Robotics and on to pneumatics and hydraulics. “Once you’ve completed that, you can go into the tester labs, which is where you control units from ‘A to B’ and have a whole series of movements that you can do,” says Fowler.

“Then you put all of those together and you end up with [for example] a water-processing plant in the classroom.

“What you’re doing is developing their skills over the two or four years that they are with us.”

While many of Fowler’s students will end up in STEM-related careers, that doesn’t follow for students in mainstream education. Yet Rickus believes the specifics of the subject matter can be less important than the wider skills pupils will develop through studying robotics.

“It’s focusing their thinking around how to solve problems and how to approach those problems,” he says.

“It’s about making sure there are lots of opportunities to use skills like collaboration and fixing of errors (debugging) so that, actually, the bit of technology you’re using doesn’t matter, it’s more about giving them hands-on opportunities to apply the theory.”

Neither McKnight, Berry nor Rickus believe it is necessary for robotics to be taught as a subject in its own right. But they all agree that collaboration between departments is essential if it is to be taught in a joined-up way. Or, in fact, be taught at all.

“We’ve got some schools we work with where the departments do talk and where the teachers in D&T work with the computer science teachers so that, for the first half of the term, the kids are building [the robots] and then you can go to computer science and programme it,” says McKnight.

“Does it need to be its own subject? No, we just need to do a better job of bridging the gaps of where it can sit and how it can be delivered.”


Nick Hughes is a freelance journalist

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