The new paradigm in engineering education demands hands-on training of the students using technology oriented projects. The roots of this approach can be traced back to the work of Seymour Papert in 1970s when he built a programmable turtle with a reflective light sensor (Papert, 1971). His ideas ultimately lead to the educational theory of constructionism (Papert, 1986 and Harel & Papert, 1991). According to this theory, students learn very effectively when they are involved in the creation of an external object that lives in the real world. Learners use this object to think with, and to relate ideas of, their subject of inquiry (Bourgoin, 1990). From an educational point of view, the theory of Papert can be linked to the constructivist theory of Jean Piaget (Paiget, 1972). According to this theory, learning comes from an active process of knowledge construction. This knowledge can be gained through real life experiences and linked to a learners’ previous knowledge. The concept of turtle was evolved further at MIT and became the famous Programmable Brick by Fred Martin who also developed new learning environments and methodologies based on this concept (Martin, 1988 and Martin 1994). The unusual idea put forward by the Brick, at least at the time of its invention, was the incorporation of the “design” work into the learning process. Students were not only users in this case, but were actively involved in the design process, while solving their problems (Martin, 1996a). The ‘Brick’ was later adopted and incorporated by the LEGO MINDSTORMS kit (RCX in 1998 and NXT made available in 2006). The use of the name “MINDSTROMS” can also be traced back to the book by Seymour Papert (Papert 1980). Versions of these Bricks for economically challenged communities have also been proposed recently (Sipitakiat, et al, 2004). The active learning methodology (Harmin and Toth, 2006) uses this philosophy of involving students in their own learning through class discussions and group problem solving and proves to be effective at least in certain cases. Robots have become a major player in this area and have been employed in improving the quality and level of student learning, ranging from primary schools to graduate level. As pointed out by Resnick and Martin (Resnick and Martin, 1990), “Creatures built from Electronic Bricks fall on the fuzzy boundary between animals and machines, forcing students to come to terms with how machines can be like animals, and vice versa”. In engineering courses incorporating connectionism approach, the students are asked to design and program a robot for a specific task. They also work in small teams and help and learn from each other. However it is important to know what is currently available to an educator so that he/she can develop the required skills, abilities, attitudes and values in students. In this article we identify some of the major research centres working in the area of education utilizing robots and discuss some of the robotic kits now available to educators. We also comment on the famous robotic competitions worldwide.
Many researches have tried to include a project-oriented approach to the teaching of engineering subjects. This approach has the benefit of allowing students to seek information on their own while developing a well defined product. The use of robots in enhancing the quality of education at a university level has been discussed by many authors (Takahashi et al, 2006, Gage & Murphy 2003, Matsushita et al 2006). Students from school to undergraduate level have been involved in microcontroller based robotic projects. They can design, build and test their robots themselves and that helps them later in their education. Mukai and McGregor (Mukai and McGregor, 2004) have gone to the level of teaching control to eight graders in public schools.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Pedagogy: The art (or science) of being a teacher but commonly referred to as the technique used in instruction.
Active Learning: The methodology which demands students to participate actively in their own learning, guided and supervised by the educator.
Constructionsim: According to the constructionist learning theory, people learn most effectively when they are involved in the creation of an external artefact in the world. This artefact becomes an “object to think with,” which is used by the learner to explore and embody ideas related to the topic of inquiry (Martin, 1996b).
Mobile Robots: Robots with the capability to move autonomously from one place to the other, including wheeled, legged, submerged and flying robots, etc.
Competency Based Learning: A system of learning which represents a dynamic mixture of knowledge, understanding, capacity and ability. The competencies are measurable outcomes of learning and hence can be evaluated at the end of the process.
Industrial Robotic Manipulators: Mechanical arms used in industry, with sensor feedback and automatic control software.
Constructivism: An educational theory or school of learning, based on the idea that knowledge is constructed by the learner based on mental activity. Learners create a mental image of how the world operates and they adapt and transform their understanding using their earlier knowledge.