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How robots can teach children math and inspire interest in the STEM fields

A basketball is thrown straight up at a velocity of 10 meters per second. If it is tossed from a height of five feet, how many seconds after it is released will it hit the ground?

Working out the answer involves coaxing the numbers into the form of a quadratic equation. Many of us remember checking our work for problems like these on a Texas Instruments calculator, where black pixels on a gray background slowly ticked out a parabola. Despite the well-meaning, real-life example included in the word problem, many students fail to grasp the applications of problems like these. How can math be important (or interesting) in a world where technology can answer all of our questions for us?

Robotics company RobotsLAB thinks that robots are the answer. Earlier this year, it revealed Box: a robotics kit that comes packaged with four robots, a tablet and a full mathematics curriculum. This month, RobotsLAB announced it has translated the entire curriculum into Spanish to reach more kids in each classroom.

RobotsLAB Box robotics kit

At the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, where it moved in 2011 after its founding in Israel in 2007, CEO Elad Inbar decided he was going to teach me the significance of a quadratic equation, a phrase that conjures up a hazy sing-song version of the quadratic formula a teacher taught me at some point in high school. Inbar set a small helicopter-pad-like mat on the ground and produced a Parrot AR.drone. He flipped through a lesson on the tablet and set the drone into motion. We watched as it ascended and then hovered in the air before settling back on the ground. A parabola on the tablet tracked its height throughout the flight.

Mobot, a cylinder on two wheels, taught me about vectors. The robotic arm, ArmBot, demonstrated some geometry and trigonometry. It was fun. My inner kid wanted to learn more.

“I can give you a 30 minute lecture on how to use a screwdriver. Or I can actually take a screwdriver, show you how to use it, and in 20 seconds you’ll understand it,” Inbar said. “That’s the power of visual learning. It’s inherent in us. We’re just using robots and bringing the abstract math to life.”

The Box’s drawback is its cost, which runs $3,500. There’s no discount on the robots, which can be bought separately for far less. Instead, the cost comes from the curriculum, which RobotsLAB has carefully constructed through years of word. During the visit, Inbar dropped a thick textbook onto the table; the physical version of each lesson included on the tablet.

RobotsLAB developed Box with the help of a panel of 14 teachers. They emphasized that the more abstract math becomes, the less their students are interested. And that drop off is painfully clear as students move from elementary school to middle school to high school.

RobotsLAB CEO Elad Inbar demonstrates the Box kit drone to staff at Twin Rivers Unified School District. Photo courtesy of RobotsLAB
RobotsLAB CEO Elad Inbar demonstrates the Box kit drone to staff at Twin Rivers Unified School District. Photo courtesy of RobotsLAB

On top of that, they are dealing with the new Common Core Standards Initiative, a nationwide program that requires teachers ensure their students hit specific benchmarks in their understanding of mathematics and English. The mathematics component includes a renewed focus on exposing students to STEM skills. The teachers complained that when they armed with just textbooks, they are fighting the impossible battle of teaching abstract concepts to disinterested students.

“We have to change the way we are teaching them,” Inbar said.

The Box kit was created with teachers like these in mind. No prior technical skills are required. The tablet includes instructions for how to teach each lesson.

Inbar said RobotsLAB plans to continue adding new lessons. The company also plans to introduce a 3D printed robot to the kit early next year. Pride Industries, which employs people with disabilities, began assembling the Box kits last month.

“I rediscovered math during working on (the kit),” Inbar said. You see the reaction from students, and it is an amazing thing.”

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