Observers may have mistaken elementary education students as robotics technicians Tuesday had they visited the Emporia Public Library.
There were indeed robots — including NAO, an autonomous, humanoid robot that played games and danced — but in reality, students from Emporia State University were using robots to provide interactive instruction.
The program is made possible by Matt Seimears, associate professor and associate chair of the elementary education department at ESU. The program was recently funded with a $265,000 grant to partner with DEPCO LLC, an educational products company based in Pittsburg, which will allow the program to train teachers in the use of robotics in instructional activities.
There were two different kinds of robots at the workshop: autonomous and remote controlled, the latter of which were constructed by future teachers at ESU. The main goal Monday was to bring children to the library.
“Often times with the Internet, we’ve skipped around the libraries, and my generation grew up where, if you had a library card you went to the library in the summer,” he said. “We’re trying to bring students back to the library with different themes.”
Cameron Collins with DEPCO opened the show with a performance from NAO, one unit of which the company typically sells for anywhere from $16,000 to $20,000.
NAO is produced by Aldebaran Robotics in Paris. Developed several years ago, NAO started out in the world as a research tool at universities around the world. He now works in high schools and middle schools as an instructional tool for learning how to program robots.
The humanoid robot was a show stealer. He played recognition games with the audience, performed favorite dances such as “Gangnam Style” and “Thriller,” and even told a story straight from the Star Wars universe.
NAO employs face-recognition software, gyros and accelerometers to protect himself in the event that he falls down: something all too familiar to NAO’s bipedal progenitors.
The other robots at the workshop were remote-controlled rovers that can be constructed from kits. The goal was to teach children in attendance about three different planets: Mars, Venus and Mercury.
“The robots that we have are actually run by remote control,” said Whitney Starr, a senior elementary education major at ESU. “Basically, ours is going to go and pick up rocks. It’s kind of like a video game.”
Seimears said part of the wonder of robotics encourages children to learn math and science and possibly, eventually, begin careers in robotics, which is flourishing with innovation in the beginning of the 21st century.
“Along the way we’ve got to focus on the content too,” Seimears said. “What content is connected to these so-called mechanical toys or NAO.”
Brennan Haag, 7, gave an update on what he learned during the workshop.
“We got to drive remote-controlled robots, we got to shoot rockets and answer questions,” he said. “We got to talk to a robot called NAO. I think NAO was really cool.”
Haag, formerly a student of the Emporia Christian School, now home-schooled, said he learned that there is ice on Mars, and that it is red in color. His favorite part of the day was driving the remote-controlled robots.
The elementary education major is the largest program on the ESU campus, and 15 are currently enrolled in the elementary science education class summer section with 36 expected for the fall.
“From what I’m aware of, we’re the only elementary teacher pre-service preparation program that does robotics with elementary ed majors,” he said.
Teachers and instructors held a robotics competition in the Visser Hall Atrium Wednesday.
Several graduates of the class are now running robotics clubs at the elementary schools where they teach.
“Hands-on is the key anymore to keep the attention of little kids,” Starr said. “Make it interesting so that they are wanting and willing to learn.”
Starr graduates in May, 2014, and with her first job in the classroom, she said she hopes to employ robots in instruction.
“You can see it really excites the kids,” she said.