Right now there’s a big push to get kids interested in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) — which sounds awesome, except for the math part, though better them than me. Neil DeGrasse Tyson says we don’t have to do anything to turn kids on to science; rather, we have to make sure we don’t turn them off (check out the adorable clip at the bottom of the post for Tyson’s advice to a first grader about how she can help the Earth). Still, not everyone’s content to let kids follow their curiosity into science. Some people, such as Harvard researcher Mike Rubenstein, wants to fill middle and high school classrooms with programmable robots and let kids have a go at them.
Of course, in order for that to work, the robots have to be relatively easy to program, and relatively cheap to make — we all know what they’ll look like after they spend some time in the mitts of grubby kids! That’s the advantage of Rubenstein’s robot, the AERobot, which costs only $10.70. The development of low-cost, early-age robotics systems has become a trend in recent years. Rubenstein developed the AERobot as part of this year’s AFRON Challenge, the “ultra affordable educational robot project.” The AERobot took home the second prize in the hardware category (losing out to a robot built by MIT researchers), but the order was flipped in the software category, where AERobot took top honors.
Rubenstein specializes in swarm-bots, and while the AERobot is a single machine, he adapted swarm systems to create his prize-winning model. The AERobot is small and relatively simple, but it can still perform a bunch of basic robotic functions, such as following lines and light and moving forward, backward, and around turns, thanks to its sensors and actuators. The open-source, drag-and-drop software allows kids to program the robot without actually having to learn programming languages, and the robot itself has a USB port to upload the program, as well as recharge the battery.
The robot’s first test came this summer at a camp where 100 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders gave it a try. Rubenstein will continue simplifying the design, software, and programming curriculum so, eventually, kids will be able to use the AERobot without any adult guidance whatsoever. Neil deGrasse Tyson would approve.