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Harvard Researchers Build $10 Robot That Can Teach Kids to Code

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Mike Rubenstein wants to put robots in the classroom.

Working with two other researchers at Harvard University, Rubenstein recently created what they call AERobot, a bot that can help teach programming and artificial intelligence to middle school kids and high schoolers. That may seem like a rather expensive luxury for most schools, but it’s not. It costs just $0.70. The hope is that it can help push more kids into STEM, studies involving science, technology, engineering, and math.

The tool is part of a widespread effort to teach programming and other computer skills to more children, at earlier stages. It’s called the code literacy movement, and it includes everything from new and simpler programming languages to children’s books that teach coding concepts.

Rubenstein’s project grew out of the 2014 AFRON Challenge, held back in January, which called for researchers to design low-cost robotic systems for education in the developing world. Part of Harvard’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, Rubstein has long studied swarm robotics, which aims to create herds of tiny robots that can behave as whole, and he ended up adapting one of his swarm systems in order to build AERobot. It’s a single machine—not a swarm bot—but it’s built from many of the same inexpensive materials.

He and his colleagues assembled most of the electronics with a pick-and-place machine—a machine that automatically builds printed circuit boards—and in order to further cut costs, they used vibration motors for locomotion and left out a chassis. The device doesn’t include its own programming interface or charger. It gets both from a desktop or laptop computer, plugging into the USB port. “There are no extra frills,” Rubenstein says.

On the software side, Rubenstein modified a programming language called minibloqs, a highly graphical means of programming machines. “You don’t really need to type code. You drag pictures,” he explains. “Say I wanted an LED on the robot to turn green. I would just drag over an image of an LED, and pick the green color.” The language, he says, is a bit like Scratch, the programming language for kids developed at MIT.

The bot can move forwards and backwards on flat surfaces, turn in place, detect light, follow lines and edges, and identify distances using reflected infrared light. And the idea is that kids will learn but programming the bot to do such things. Rubenstein and his team provide a fifteen-lesson curriculum that walks students through the sensors and the actuators, the programming flow and logic, and how to create specific robot behavior.

At the 2014 AFRON Challenge, AERobot won the top honor in the software category, and it took second place in the hardware and curriculum categories. The team has since tested it with about 100 sixth- to eighth- graders at a STEM-focused summer camp called i2Camp, and they plan to do further tests this coming summer. Rubenstein says that for the bot’s next iteration, the group is focusing on improving the curriculum and the software, eliminating steps in the installation process and ensuring AERobot is so simple that kids can learn how to use the thing on their own—without a teacher.

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“Harvard Researchers Build Robot That Can Teach Kids to Code”