"Sisters bet robotics in schools will plant seeds for STEM careers"

Posted by on 28 February 2014 | Comments

Check out this great article by IDG's Agam Shah in Computer World regarding our Pi-Bot on Kickstarter!

Offering physical computing experiences in classrooms will prepare students for dealing with how pervasive computing and Internet services will become in the next decade, said Anthony Mullen, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"It will excite their imaginations about the possibilities of automation, inform their views on the relationship between people and machines and give them a hands-on experience of the 'new engineering' that will be in demand when they graduate," Mullen said.

Students using Pi-Bot will be able to make robots that move in a straight line or autonomously navigate a maze aided by distance and light sensors, said John Caffrey, a professor of mechanical engineering, at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona who has worked with the kit.

"When they learn how to program the Pi-Bot to do what they want to do, such as detecting light, responding to sound, controlling the motor speed, it becomes very exciting," he said. "Once you get this creativity going, the inspiration to learn the math and science will follow."

The Jawaharlals' STEM Center has educated thousands of students in robotics in the U.S. and India over the last two years, with Pi-Bot prototypes built for classroom use. The robots are created by students using Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform that consists of hardware and software used to make interactive electronic objects or environments.

If full funding is achieved through the Kickstarter campaign, Pi-Bot kits will be priced at less than $100, which is less expensive than other prominent school-level kits from Vex, whose kits start at $399.99 or Lego, whose Tetrix Education Base Set is $599.95. The Jawaharlals are determined to raise enough funding.

"If Kickstarter doesn't work, we're going to continue looking for funding," Melissa Jawaharlal said.

There are basic robotics kits similar to Pi-Bot using Arduinos or Arduino derivatives, but the proposed price is competitive, Gibb said.

"Higher prices push a lot of students and school districts out of the robotics market. Anything cheaper than what is available is groundbreaking and important so more kids can build regardless of their economic status," Gibb said.

The Pi-Bot kit includes an acrylic chassis, a board with a microcontroller, a USB cable, wheels, gearbox, sensors, LEDs, resistors, jumpers, wiresets, four AA battery holders and other components. The first kits will ship in June.

Artist Addie Wagenknecht likened Pi-Bot to Lasersaur, an open-source hardware cutter that she co-developed at a fraction of the cost of available alternatives.

"As students, we wanted access to machines which were prohibitively expensive. We built our own so others could benefit from it as well," Wagenknecht said.

The use of Arduino in Pi-Bot is a good move, making it simple to use and replicate, Wagenknecht said.

"When working with students, I found the projects that are the most successful need to have minimal parts and be easy to program -- at least when you are learning the foundations," Wagenknecht said.

Pi-Bot is meant to be a basic introductory kit, Jawaharlal said. Robots can be programmed to switch on light bulbs with a snap-on robotic arm, but young students will find it challenging to write multiple layers of code, Jawaharlal said.

"When you're getting introduced, you don't know if you want to spend $500 on a robot with a camera and a robotic arm. We plan on expanding this to become a line of products," Jawaharlal said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com