Institute for Personal Robots in Education Blog

Robot Conflict

In the past, the Franklin Institute has invited us here at Bryn Mawr College to participate in demonstrations of our interesting robotics projects. We have always been very happy to take a group of robots on a nice Saturday morning in the Fall and have some fun showing kids of all ages our toys, er, I mean, "research opportunities."

However, this year I am hesitating. This year, the FI is bundling their robot demonstrations with an event called Robot Conflict. They describe it this way:

They're not just on television any more...come experience the TRUE POWER of Combat Robotics in person at The Franklin Institute Robot Conflict on Saturday, October 20, 2007.

This all day event being co-sponsored by the museum's PACTS Program, and the the East Coasts' premier Combat Robotics Organization, the Northeast Robotics Club.

Nearly 40 robots ranging in size from 12lb. Hobbyweights, to 30lb. Sportsman will be placed into a custom design arena where they will have 3 minutes to smash, toss, or cut their opponents to bits. Some of the 'bots will rely on their small but deadly power, while others use weapons to inflict maximum destructive damage on their opponent.

All of the robots have been custom designed, built, and operated by Amateur Robot Hobbyists from up and down the US East Coast. After enjoying the action-packed robot battles, learn first-hand how these hobbyists put their robots together, see what it takes to repair these complex machines after battle, and ask what it takes to be successful in this competitive arena.

I admit that I was a little shocked at how violent it all sounds. But, I thought: if it brings kids interested in science and technology to the table, then I'm willing to consider it.

So, I began to check out NERC, the North East Robotics Club which is sponsoring the event. I took a look at much of their website, including their forums. Interestingly, I couldn't find a single post by someone who had an obviously-female sounding name. Zero. None. None of the advisers were women, either.

I work with many women here at BMC that are, if anything, competitive. And I don't want to rely on out-dated stereotypes. But this Robot Conflict activity has all of the signs of appealing to a very select group of people: young, well-off, obsessive, solitary, white boys. More importantly, could it be turning away the rest?

Could it be possible that an event such as this proposed by the FI could actually do more harm than good for brining a large, diverse group of kids into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? Or does it just encourage the few that are interested anyway to have some fun? Drop us a note below to let us know what you think.

BMC may participate in this event, but in our own way. Stay tuned...

I'm disappointed in FI

Fri, 2007-09-21 16:45
Kimberly Blessing (not verified)

Doug, I'm so glad to hear of your hesitation to participate this year. I'm really shocked to learn that the Franklin Institute would put on an event like this -- it seems less about the engineering and more about the thrill of combat.

I enjoyed Battlebots for a while, but I found building robots to do other, more "peaceful" things to be much more fun and interesting. It's very possible that other women would feel the same way...

So I'd recommend that Bryn Mawr go anyway, first to demonstrate that women are involved in robotics, and second to show what else can be done with robots! Not showing up might mean that people only walk away with the impression that those solitary guys work with robots.

It does sound VERY violent.

Tue, 2007-09-25 09:35
Lisa (not verified)

It does sound VERY violent. I was never a big fan of the PBS show robot wars, partly because of the violence, but also because of the teleoperation aspect of it. It seems like there would be many other types of robot demos that would be much MORE appropriate for a museum setting.

Wow. I agree with you, too

Tue, 2007-09-25 10:07
Ioana (not verified)

Wow. I agree with you, too violent. Who is the description supposed to attract?

In Seattle this weekend Robothon is going on, which has some wrestling competitions but also other things.

For some reason people are attracted to destruction.

I’m disappointed in this

Tue, 2007-09-25 15:33
Manny (not verified)

I’m disappointed in this overly biased, and mostly inaccurate blog posting. You lead your readers and the Bryn Mawr Community at-large to believe that TFI is hosting a violent, biased, and exclusionary event without even completing real research to back up your claims.

Doug, you should have shared with the group your entire experience at the Franklin Institute when you displayed your robots. Every time Bryn Mawr has been invited, it has been a part of the “Tech Fair”, which is set up in the most public areas of the museum to encourage ALL of our visitors, girls and boys, young & old to experience the world of robotics, from the amateur, to college, to professional level.

How about the students and staff from the museum’s PACTS Program who hosted the tech fair every time you came to the event. Those students, from mostly minority communities, and some from inner-city Philadelphia are excited to participate in robotics workshops here at the museum every weekend, and even on school holidays when they are here designing, building, operating, and competing robots in special events around this region. I’d say that these robotics workshops keep these students off the streets, and occupied in a safe environment…. reducing crime on Philadelphia’s streets.

For all of the time you take bashing the members of NERC, it seems that only THEIR members (based in North Jersey) volunteer with those same students every weekend, on their OWN time to work with those same students on building their own robot. I’m sure the FEMALE robotics coach at the museum would be glad to have any volunteers that would be willing to build on the positive spirit of innovation set by Benjamin Franklin, instead of just negative posts about programs you wish not to share the real truth about.

BTW….I’m sure the museum would welcome all in the Bryn Mawr community to attend the contest on October 20. You’ll be able to meet the international group of amateur robot hobbyists, black, white, female…and male. I’m sure you’ll find out the real, inspiring nature of amateur robotics…..and become inspired to build your own.

Constructive Criticism?

Tue, 2007-09-25 16:59

Manny,

Is something I posted inaccurate? If so, I'll fix it. But it does seem that the Franklin Institute is hosting a violent event. I posed the question to readers to see if they think it is biased, and some do seem believe that it may be turning people away. I didn't bash anyone. But I did suggest that they may turning away more kids than they are attracting. If that's true, then how would we test this hypothesis? How could NERC be adapted to bring in those that find these types of events violent? Would it want to?

I'm not trying to stop students' involvement in robotics; I'm trying to increase their involvement! Please check out the materials listed at this site and its parent site at wiki.roboteducation.org. But let's agree that it is at least possible that some events could be repelling more students than they are attracting. If you won't even consider this possibility, then we can't move forward.

-Doug

Discouraging

Tue, 2007-09-25 18:31
Laura (not verified)

Let me get my obvious bias out of the way. I'm married to the original poster. However, I'm also a strong proponent in my own right of getting women involved in technology-related fields. Much of the work I do is geared toward that goal.

One of the things that's come out in a lot of research related to girls and women in fields where they are underrepresented--science, technology, upper echelons of business--is that it's often the culture of that field that keeps them out. The culture is often very male-oriented, focusing on competition instead of cooperation, as one example. I just listened to a Harvard Business Review podcast about how the culture at many companies is what keeps women out. At some companies, for example, women managers are taken out to entertain clients at strip clubs. That may be an extreme case, but there are plenty of more subtle things that can turn people off and prevent them from participating in something. It's important to examine our assumptions about what others find appealing. Maybe combat robotics is appealing to some people, but it might not be to others.

I applaud the FI for encouraging the building of technical skills in kids, especially kids who might not have the opportunity otherwise, but there are many ways to do that besides having kids watch robots destroy each other. I find it ironic that Manny mentioned discouraging crime by having students in a program based on violence. I might remind others that Bryn Mawr's roots are in the Quaker philosophy, which is opposed to violence, so Bryn Mawr students questioning the use of violence in education is in keeping with its foundations.

Laura and Doug, I appreciate

Wed, 2007-09-26 08:03
Manny (not verified)

Laura and Doug,

I appreciate your insightful responses, and I understand that both of you are proponents of greater participation in robotics by women and minorities. However, I think you may be barking at the wrong tree here, and critizing a program that is actually helping the problem that you are advocating for.

This contest will be hosted by The Franklin Institute’s PACTS Program, which for nearly 20 years has been all about getting underrepresented populations into science. Roughly about 10 years ago, volunteer mentors with the program suggested starting a robotics program. That group, which still relies on volunteer support, started building robots made from LEGO pieces. After winning many awards in the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE, the team members expressed great interest in working with more advanced robotics, and stronger competitions, which led us to NERC. This was one of the only groups willing to come in, and really give our students a hands-on experience with building an advanced robot. Click on NERC’s “About Us” page on their website, and you’ll get the true mission of this group “ to make robotic combat accessible to all interested parties. NERC is a small, close-knit family of builders, whose membership spans from students to businessmen; from nurses to restaurant owners. All types of people are involved, with the age span going from competitors under 7 to folks that are "more seasoned”.

I’d like to specifically answer your questions about the museum’s promotion of violence, and about female participation in robotics. Even both of you readily admit that the robotic sciences are not female-friendly. The museum is aware that fact, and they are actively trying to change that. That’s why your group, and many others like yours received an invitation to the contest and technology fair. Although there will be a contest featuring robots made and operated by mostly men, we hope the visitors will be inspired by the inter-racial group of kids who have their own robot entered in the contest, and by the diverse group of presenters at the tech fair to see “Yes, Virginia, there’s really a place for you in robotics”.

Finally, as a life-long resident of Philadelphia who grew up inner city Philadelphia, and benefited from programs like PACTS, let me ask you to open your mind to alternate ways of reaching Philadelphia’s children. This contest may not be the perfect solution to getting every kid interested in science, but every week there are nearly 30 kids at the museum building robots down at the museum, with volunteers from NERC, and a female coaching leading them along the way. Yes, some kids may be turned off by violence, but there’s many more getting a hands-on education in robotics than were before the program existed. In fact, I know there’s even a waiting list to get into that program. Maybe you and your readers would be well served to evaluate the outcomes of non-traditional educational experiences like these, before presenting them as projects that do more harm than good. Hopefully, your outlook on this event will be changed when you see the quality, educational, and family-friendly event that the museum will present.

Violence in robotics

Wed, 2007-09-26 10:45
Deepak (not verified)

Manny:

It is a simple question to ask yourself.

Are the kids attracted to your program because of robotics?

or

Are the kids attracted to your program because of the violence portrayed and embodied by the robots?

If you all can parse out the differences for yourselves you would realize that you could continue to attract the kids you do and do all (and perhaps more) of the good work you have been doing by focusing on the robotics and eliminating the violence out of it. If you think that eliminating the violence out of your robotics exercises will also be a detriment to attracting more kids, then you ought to consider abandoning the program! You ought to know better given that you are a Philadelphian and I'm sure are aware of the seriously escalating gun violence rates in the city. You may think that you are helping the kids involved in the program but think about the public who will visit your "show" and what ideas and impressions they will go home with concerning robots and violence...you ARE impacting the public perception of an academic endeavor in a negative way.

I think, what we all are pleading to you is not to stop your program, but think about the implications of the context in which you are putting the robots and these students and the public who will come to see them. You can achieve the same results (and attract an even more diverse set of kids) by changing the context to something more socially helpful and devoid of violence.

Your programs are commendable in a number of ways and with a little conscious shift of focus could do even better.

This really truly is a moment for you all to sit back and think and reflect about it.

Deepak, Students are

Wed, 2007-09-26 11:31
Manny (not verified)

Deepak,

Students are attracted to the program because of the robotics.
Every student (girls & boys), have been more than excited about this upcoming contest.
They’re excited not just about the contest, but more about the chance to work with advanced electronics, circuits, and controllers that they are assembling on their own.

I’m glad there is so much response to the original posting on this blog. Now that we are convened as a community of robotics educators, maybe someone can offer viable alternative solutions to something you feel is a problem. Are there other programs out there that have had similar success in encouraging students in robotics? Certainly, the museum staff would be open to other interesting ideas and programs about robotics that can capture the attention of youth. Maybe even someone would be willing to volunteer, like the NERC members have, coming down on regular weekends to share new skills with the students.

On a last point, I’m not sure comparing robotic combat to the tragic violence on Philadelphia’s streets does any justice to the issue; in fact it only trivializes it. I believe students who live close to, and have even witnessed true acts of violence know what that is. They are acutely aware of what is positive, and what is not. As educators, we should know the difference clearly too.

NERC = NRA?

Sat, 2007-09-29 11:59
Deepak (not verified)

NERC: Northeast Robotics Club explains on their web site that their goal is to "further the sport of combat robotics". It hosts the ROBOT CONFLICT event and NERC describes it as "The Northeasts Premier Combat Robotics Competition".

'nuff said.

Like Doug mentions in his post, there are many other more egnaging and exciting robotics activities that might make for a better collaboration between a museum (especially one named after Ben Franklin) and its PACTS Program.

Some non-violent robot links

Wed, 2007-09-26 23:23

Manny,

Now you're asking the right questions! Here are some pointers to some groups that do robotics with kids right:

  • Botball - a great league where kids get to design their robot and compete. But in a non-violent ways. Many great lessons for the kids, from gear ratios to teamwork. No violence.
  • Artbotics - this is a perfect match for students and a museum. Students actually make the art. No violence.

That's just a couple of different ways one could take all of the energy and good will that you guys have, steer in a slightly different direction, and make it much more enticing for a larger, more diverse crowd.

I do believe that kids can get desensitized to violence, both human and robotic. Which leads to my next post...

very interesting!!!!!!!!!!

Fri, 2007-10-26 05:53
Annie Manjuran (not verified)

wow this seeems really really interesting .Robotic battles & all That i mean that is something really good. It may sound violent but it is something really useful. Kids would love it not for thr fact of learning science & technology but beacuse of ROBOTS...........

Empirical question

Fri, 2007-10-26 07:04

There is no doubt that:

  • some people find battling robots interesting
  • battling robots are violent

What there is some doubt about is how useful battling robots are. If they turn away more people than they attract, then we should clarify their usefulness. Whether they do more harm than good is an empirical question that should be asked.

Also, there is a nice article here that captures many of the issues of the event.

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