Students receive 1,000 robots

Tom Lauwers has produced a robot to help students learn programming. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Lauwers) Tom Lauwers has produced a robot to help students learn programming. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Lauwers)

Imagine if every student in 15–110 had the opportunity to use his or her programming skills to control robots. BirdBrain Technologies, a startup company that grew from Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab is introducing 1,000 robots to up to 20 school districts and educational organizations in an attempt to inspire and guide novice programmers in the world of computer science. The distribution of the robots will take place Dec. 8–14, during Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek).

The robot — known as the Finch — is a low-cost tabletop robot with bird-like features that has light, temperature, and obstacle sensors, along with an accelerometer that measures the direction the Finch tilts. The Finch also possesses simple components: Two motor-driven wheels, a buzzer, and a beak are programmed to light up in different colors. All these attributes are manipulated by an input device similar to a Wii remote. Its most convenient feature is its over-15-foot USB cable, which eliminates the need for batteries and drives down costs. In addition, the robot supports a variety of major programming languages.

Tom Lauwers, the creator of Finch and founder of BirdBrain Technologies, designed the Finch at the Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab after his four-year research study as a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute. The study ended in 2010 after the successful development of a robot with a set of features optimized for computer science education. Back in 2005, computer science programs and high school programming classes were struggling with low enrollment and lack of interest from students; Lauwers aimed to increase student motivation in introductory classes by creating an appropriate learning tool. Since it went on the market two-and-a-half years ago, the Finch’s purpose has been to help students.

Despite the commercial success since the robot’s launch, Lauwers and his team faced challenges during developmental stages that dealt with deciding which features to include in the robot. For example, they originally debated adding in a camera, but ditched the idea after realizing its added expenses and relatively small usefulness in a classroom setting.

Nonetheless, BirdBrain Technologies is now loaning out several hundred robots for an entire year because the company has received an overwhelming number of applicants and wanted to support more schools than the original plan allowed. The company estimates that the new program will allow 15,000–30,000 students in roughly 50 school districts to have at least one hour of experience programming the Finch. BirdBrain Technologies explicitly requires that students have little or no experience programming robots; The company also favors schools that have a high number of low-income students. It also only specifically serves students in grades four through nine.

Although many educational systems seem to view computer science courses as high–school level electives, Lauwers regards them as core skills that should be learned earlier on in upper elementary school. He hopes that at least some of the students who program the Finch will take the initiative to use free programs such as Snap! and Scratch to independently study programming.

Lauwers must evaluate over 150 applications before this Friday and decide which ones are the most promising. Then, he needs to work with several stakeholders to develop activities for the robots for the teachers to use, and direct the warehouse that processes his company’s orders to deliver the robots. Before CSEdWeek, BirdBrain Technologies will send out five robots to each participating organization in November to allow teachers preparation time.

Although his focus is definitely on the Pittsburgh community, Lauwers sees himself as part of larger organization to promote computer science education.
“We want to support Computer Science Education Week’s Hour of Code initiative, which seeks to demystify computer code with a one-hour introductory activity for 10 million students,” he said.