A leader in STEM education explores what’s next with students and robots.

GUEST COLUMN | by Karen Panetta

Robotics plays a large role in attracting and retaining students to the STEM discipline. The use of robots – particularly in projects and competitions – helps to engage students and teach them critical skills around programming and sensory technology.

Additionally, robots can be used to help level the playing field for different-abled students that may not have the capability to participate in conducting physical experiments.

Also, students with visual impairments can observe phenomena.

Just Around the Corner

Robots will leave an even larger impact in the future. Assistive learning devices will help us to program, interact with our environment and provide us with audio, visual and tactile feedback.

STEM education and pedagogy will evolve to better assist in teaching autistic children by utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms to learn what approaches are best suited for an individual via facial expressions, gestures and identifying emotions.

This same technology may even help design better methods to understand the experience of Alzheimer’s patients.

The use of robots for assistive technology will inspire young people to learn more about robotics and technology. Today, biomedical engineering is the foremost attractive engineering field for girls, because they are familiar with the larger social impact that the field makes to humanity.

Traditional projects for robotics in STEM education always include the robot executing some path planning or object manipulation tasks.

These can include actions like having the robot find its way out of a maze, or locating an object, like a ball, and depositing it into a basket. While this underlying path planning and object manipulation actions are fundamental to learn, students will be able to explore much more complex applications, where the impact and social value of the project is immediately understood, even if students have never worked with robots before.

This includes a robot-guide dog to help visually impaired individuals navigate through crowded streets, or a robot that patrols parks and beaches to pick up trash and knows how to recycle.

All this will be possible as robot platform costs decrease and the simplicity of programming the robots and its sensors increases.

Next-Gen STEM Students

The next generation of young STEM students will learn to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) methodologies to train robots to carry out more human like actions, like recognizing people by their face or voice. AI methods will help robots recognize what the best learning style is for an individual, and tailor its interaction for the human it’s assisting.

Consider a robot being able to help guide students during their studies with homework, without just giving the student the answer. Also, the robot will have the ability to recognize when the student is becoming frustrated or confused and will adjust its approach long before the student gives up.

Imagine doing a math problem and getting the answer incorrect. Instead of hearing “wrong answer” for every attempt with no feedback, the robot will be able to visualize the equations and compare the “wrong” answer to the desired outcome and explain why the answer provided is wrong.

This will allow students to experiment and learn an essential engineering skill, which is essential during the learning process, and can be useful for helping to discover new insights.

Students will learn from experimenting on their robot, too.

Teaching the Robot

Imagine a student teaching the robot to see when some of the robot’s sensors are unavailable or how to teach the robot to ride a bike, hit a baseball, take the dog for a walk and pick up after it, or make chocolate chip cookies unassisted. This will introduce STEM topics to students including physics, signal processing, and a diversity of engineering disciplines.

In the process, the student will learn more about how to improve their own performance, such as a better swing to hit a baseball using the trajectory information from which the ball was thrown, or to understand how to better organize their thoughts into detailed sequential actions.

For instance, if you tell the robot to add eggs while making cookies, but don’t teach it how to crack the egg and extract the inside of it, the robot would throw the entire egg in its shell into the mix, resulting in cookies that are very crunchy, but not in a good way!

But the Best Outcome?

The best outcome of including robots in STEM education will be students themselves finding new ways to utilize robots’ agility, data collection and artificial intelligence capabilities, while innovating new robot technology to benefit society.

Karen Panetta is a computer engineer, inventor, and the Dean of Graduate Education for the School of Engineering at Tufts University. She is also an IEEE Fellow, Editor-in-Chief, IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine, a Presidential Awardee for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education and Mentoring—and the founder of Nerd Girls. Visit her website. Write to: karen@computer.org