Institute for Personal Robots in Education Blog

Deepak Kumar's blog

ACM SIGCSE2008-Portland, OR Report

We just returned from ACM SIGCSE-2008 which was held in rainy and gloomy Portland, OR. Nice city though, despite the weather and most of us from IPRE were just too busy fielding interest from the 1400+ attendees.

IPRE had a booth in the Exibhition Hall which was continuously staffed by the bulk of the IPRE team. The conference also coincided with the official launch of the first IPRE Kit and also an announcement regarding two summer workshops we will be hosting. Needless to say, we were thrilled to have received numerous orders within 24 hours of the launch. It kind of generated the euphoria that many dot-commers experience when a site goes online.

Is a robot car in your future?

Imagine this:


You get ready to go to work in the morning, go into your garage, open the door, pick up the newspaper from the driveway, get in the car, and say:

"Take me to work."

The car backs out of your driveway, on the road and heads toward work. You're sitting in the back seat (no driver in front!) reading the paper.

On the STOP sign near your block, you say:

"Stop by the Starbucks on the way"

The car goes into a Starbucks, you go in, get your favorite latte, hop back in, and off you go!

Couple weeks back I went over to U-Penn to watch the DARPA Urban Challenge Race being live webcast from Victorville, CA. There were about 60-70 people in the room (we had to move to a bigger room!) watching the events unfold. Lots of loud cheering each time Penn's entry (Little Ben) was shown on the screen. 5-10 minutes into the race, Little Ben ran into a snag: it just came to a halt trying to take a left turn onto a major road. DARPA had to stop all the other cars for 5-10 minutes. The commentators wondered out loud if that was the end of Little Ben. Half the people in the room walked out dejected.

From the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2007: Robots in CS1

This week I'm at the 2007 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Seattle/Redmond. The Summit was attended by 400 invitees from all over the world (~92% academics, 3% governemt, 6% corporate). At the opening panel Prof. Ed Lazowska (University of Washington) led the attendees through a series of polls which were recorded through a SRS (Student response System). Among the dozen or so questions posed to the audience (the above percentages are also from one of the questions), Prof. Lazowska asked two questions that are directly relevant to our IPRE endeavor (Thanks, Ed!):
[Sorry, the phrasing of the questions is not exact, but something to that effect.]

Question:Are you (or your department) thinking about making changes to your introductory computer science courses (CS1/CS2) to increase its appeal and to attract more students into computing?

The anthropomorphization/biomimicing of robots....

This is a follow up to Natasha's post...

Indeed, there may be a goal out there of creating the perfect humanoid but would that make it an interesting robot? In the educational robotics arena, the goal is to engage students (who are all people, so far I do not know of any robots that have enrolled for classes, or have they? :-) the engagement comes from being interesting, perhaps entertaining, or both.

R2D2 and C3P0 are interesting not because of their morphology, but because of the personalities attributed to them in their roles.

A more interesting case is that of the SONY Aibo. While morphologically similar to a dog, it really is nothing like a dog, though the last incarnations resembled Schultz's Snoopy and that made it very cute and engaging. But then Snoopy is a cartoonish representation of beagles...in fact cartoonish characterizations seem to be more interesting..think of a tiger and then think of Watterson's Hobbes, etc. Again, personality goes a long way :-)

From the Spring Symposium: Robot Platforms

There is much going on here and it will be hard to post all the highlights. Those interested should contact AAAI for a copy of the Symposium papers. There are papers from all over the US (K-12, university level), and many countries (Israel, Canada, Ghana, Qatar...) represented.

I wanted to provide a quick overview of the robot platforms that were demo-ed here (again in no particular order):

1. The Surveyor Robot from Howard Gordon: This has already been reviewed here, See Doug's blog below)

2. The Parallax Scribbler: Also reviewed here (see below)

3. The LEGO Mindstorms NXT: Also reviewed here (see below)

From the AAAI Spring Symposium on Educational Robotics

This is the second day of the symposium and I thought I'd write some observations.

First, there are more than 65 people attending this symposium. AAAI had to give us the largest room available! Obviously there is a lot of interest in educational robotics. Thanks to Doug Blank and Zach Dodds for organizing a great set of presentations, discussions and demos.

Yesterday, we split up into ad hoc groups to discuss "Top 10 things NOT to do with robots in education". Here are some highlights:

1. Do NOT drop the robot. Ensure that they do not roll off the table.
2. Do NOT attempt to get into robots if you do not have sufficient financial and personnel resources. I.e. make sure you have adequate support from your institution.

Parallax Scribbler Robot: First Impressions

For $79.95 you can purchase a preassembled, ready-to-run, personal robot called, Scribbler, made by the folks at Parallax Inc. for ages 8+.

The Scribbler is a programmable robot whose dimensions are approximately 6(W) x 8(L) x 3.5(H) inches. The shipped package contains the robot (no assembly required), a 26-page Start-up Guide, software CD, and a serial cable (for downloading programs from a PC). The software runs on a PC only (Windows 200/XP). If your PC does not have a serial port, you can additionally purchase a USB-to-serial adapter ($14.95) that will enable the connection over the provided serial cable.

LEGO Mindstorms NXT: First Impressions

Speaking of Personal Robots, LEGO made a definite first splash in this area several years ago when it released its LEGO RCX as the Mindstorms Invention System. Designed for ages 10 and up, the RCX was probably an ideal toy for a kid. Other than the RCX brick itself, most other parts (sensors, motors) were standard LEGO pieces that one even had in their own other LEGO kits. The genius of RCX was that it integrated well with existing LEGO pieces and more or less looked the same as any other LEGO piece. The same wire connectors worked for connecting sensors and motors to the RCX. A graphical 'programming language' was used to design control programs. Several computer science departments turned to RCX (probably the best reverse engineered commercial electronic artifact of its times) and designed several innovative courses, labs, and programming languages (from C, NQC, LISP, JAVA, and even ADA!).

Skeptics are welcome! Plus some remarks on the state of CS1/CS2...

The goals of IPRE to some seem mundane and not quite 'fresh'. We'll be the first to admit that the ideas are not new. We ourselves have been using robots in undergrduate education for over a decade now! What makes this project exciting is that it is a result of culminating all of our collective experiences of the last 10+ years into technology (personal robots) and curricula (for CS1/CS2 for now) for injecting fresh ideas and approaches to the standard computer science curricula.

It is now widely agreed in the CS education community that most current models of CS1/CS2 are broken. People can (and do) argue at length about whether using robots will solve the current enrollment crisis in computer science. Most even jump to the conclusion that we think that robots are the answer to this complex issue. I'd like to categorically mention that using robots in CS1/CS2 is a way of making the entry into computer science more accessible. This is what we are currently committing ourselves to but also claim that there will be a need for other ways to make the entry into computer science more accessible, interesting, and intellectually challenging. For example, see the Multimedia approach used by Mark Guzdial et alat Georgia tech...

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