DiDIY robotics makes ALL children work together

As you may already know, on February 3rd, 2016 we had several fruitful meetings in Thessaloniki. In one of those meeting we spoke, among other things, of robotics in education. Today, we are happy to host this guest post by Alexander Astaras of ACT, who together with Dr. Andromachi Nanou of INCLUDE, is the coordinator of one of the activities we discovered while meeting the "Makers Society". The post provides many more details of general interest about that project, as well as precious inspiration for our future research on DiDIY and Education.

The "Makers Society" club is hosted by DiDIY partner American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), but is open to students and faculty from universities and colleges all around the Thessaloniki area, as well as entrepreneurs and private individuals from the Thessaloniki area. Some technologically advanced high school students also actively participate: members are generally older than 15 years of age, while some younger members follow the club's activities online.

During the meeting we discussed the issue of letting Makers/Fablab education connect with Experiential Learning techniques across age groups. This is natural for human beings, we evolved to learn by watching and then doing, not just hearing or reading. Fab-labs can help us put this fundamental training element back into our education system. Currently we segregate students by age too much and restrict them to auditoriums and libraries disproportionately long.

Role of DiDIY Robotics in education

At the Makers Society, we have found that robotics is hugely beneficial in education in a variety of ways. To begin with, it helps beginners (of all ages!) be introduced to programming and algorithmic thinking in a natural way: the difference between someone who understands programming and someone who actually codes is substantial and can sometimes even be life-changing. Then there is the simultaneous training in electronics, mechanics and informatics in harmony, which can be far more empowering then commanding bytes in memory and pixels on a computer screen.

Other benefits of robotics in education that we have found are:

  • designing for dynamic environments (mobile robotics), where aspiring designers have to learn to predict unforeseen circumstances and plan ahead;
  • iterative design, where designers think, plan, design, test, learn from their mistakes and keep going through the cycle on a continuously improving path (this has both practical and business repercussions, for instance let us think of the much celebrated Japanese "Kaizen" mentality);
  • the mere presence, in a class, of a robot that can be customized in many ways makes children with special needs "blend" and participate with the others, more than they would have done without the robot as a "catalyst" (in other words: DIY robotics helps all children, whatever their capabilities are, to interact more and more naturally with each other);
  • finally, robotics as a research subject is a natural magnet for students towards STEM disciplines, which in some countries can be particularly valuable: for instance, in the USA they have issues attracting enough students to Engineering schools, particularly women.

A great partnership with INCLUDE

The idea of using robotics as a catalyst that unites children with all levels and sets of skills came from a local charity for children at risk of social exclusion called INCLUDE, which was already using, for the same purposes, activities like Theater and Judo. Together with INCLUDE, the Makers Society has developed a mutually beneficial cycle of transferable skills at the American College of Thessaloniki and the Anatolia High School:

  • high school students from Anatolia College join an introductory robotics programming summer school course to learn how to build and program robots;
  • by doing so they benefit by enriching their CVs for College and University applications in the years to follow;
  • students practice their skills at weekly Makers Society meetings at ACT, where they also learn how to think laterally and design in teams;

Eventually, the students join INCLUDE as volunteers and help use robotics to attract regular children (7-14 years, generally) to mixed groups that also include children with special education needs; these groups then gain cohesion by participating in local robotics competitions. The volunteer work feeds back to their International Baccalaureate study programme (mandatory credits on volunteerism) as well as enriching their CVs.