Robots demonstrated for kids

Peter Kauffner

Robots don’t always cooperate with humans, as University students John Fischer and Dean Hougen discovered when their robot stopped last week in the middle of a demonstration for more than 20 elementary school students.
“One of the guesses is that the slight amount of extra drag from the carpet caused the motor to overheat,” said Hougen, a computer science graduate student.
“Basically, we need to replace a couple of burnt chips on the board and it should be back in the running. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as going up in smoke.”
Hougen and Fischer are students of University professor Maria Gini, a robotics specialist who organized several robotics demonstrations last week for school children in Coffman Memorial Union.
“A lot of what we wanted to do was just get the kids thinking creatively about these things themselves and trying to imagine what you can do with robots,” Hougen said.
The children were asked what kinds of robots could be used for specific tasks, such as replacing a bus driver.
“It has actually progressed, and now one of the people at MIT has actually taken a car out and had it drive down a real highway at highway speed with computers controlling it,” Hougen said.
Gini said she hopes the demonstrations will get more girls interested in mathematics and science.
“There are more boys than girls [at the demonstrations], but there are quite a good number of girls who are interested in science and are interested in robotics and are excited about it and later on withdraw from it,” she said.
The Lego-like look of the robots used in the demonstration allows children to relate to them more easily, Gini said. “When they come in the room they immediately see Lego. Oh Lego.’ They recognize this immediately.”
The robots’ sizes were also intended to make them more appealing to children. “I think big robots may scare them off even more. They kind of like the small ones. Also they are not dangerous. You can pick them up. They don’t run too fast,” Gini said.
Hougen and Fischer demonstrated a series of robots for the children, each with greater sophistication or more sensors than the last. Some robots moved by using legs, while others had wheels.
Ali Jarzyera, 10, a student at Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville, said the demonstration was fun. In particular, she liked one robot that had two big back wheels and two smaller wheels in the front. Using light sensors, it could detect and follow a curving black line on the floor.
The last demonstration featured a fist-sized, black and white camera attached to a laptop computer. The children were asked what the small camera could do.
“Look over your homework for you and check for any stupid mistakes,” answered one girl.
“As a teacher, I’d like the proverbial pair of eyes in back of the head,” said Cele Perkett of Apple Valley.
Justin Olsen, 10, a student at Northview Elementary in Eagan, said his favorite robot was one that didn’t have too many wires sticking out of it. “[The demonstration] made me more open-minded to different solutions to problems,” he said.