Take the robot challenge


BY TAN SHIOW CHIN

I ALMOST feel guilty that I’m having so much fun. I hope that the kids have half as much fun as I do,” said Dr Mike Reddy, co-designer of the Micro RoverBot Challenge. 

A senior lecturer with the Centre for Astronomy and Science Educa-tion at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, Dr Reddy specialises in the field of robotics. 

“I've had kids saying to me, 'You build Lego and you get paid?' when they see my office, which is filled with robots and bits of them,” smiled Dr Reddy. 

Although a university lecturer, he frequently works with school-children in his native Wales through various outreach programmes funded by the British government to stimulate interest in science. 

Dr REDDY: “It's very difficult to get kids who want to be pop stars orfootballers interested in science and technology.”

He believes firmly that “scientists have a duty to go back to where they come from” and give back to the community. 

“It's very difficult to get kids who want to be pop stars or footballers interested in science and technology. Teachers in schools especially have a hard time teaching kids these subjects,” he said.  

“It's strange because technology is considered cool, for example hand phones, but science isn’t. But then you can't have technology without science, so it's an ironic situation.” 

Dr Reddy was in Malaysia recently at the invitation of the British Council to facilitate the Challenge, which is being held as part of the Exploring the Solar System exhibition organised by the Council and the National Space Agency. 

Dr Reddy can easily identify with schoolteachers as he taught Physics and Mathematics in a secondary school prior to becoming a university lecturer. 

His classes consisted of students who were considered to have special needs and were not going to sit for the O-level examinations. 

Although they were not going to take the exam, they still needed to be taught the syllabus. Therefore, he had to come up with ideas to catch their interest and make the subject relevant to them. 

What Dr Reddy did was to set a challenge to them – they could bring in anything they wanted and he would be able to explain how it worked to them through his knowledge of science. 

“One boy, David, brought in a hologram and challenged me to explain how it worked,” Dr Reddy recalls. “He was really surprised when I brought in a hologram I had made myself when I was in university.” 

Using robots as an educational tool is one way to get children interested in science again. And instead of just teaching them abstract theoretical ideas, Dr Reddy believes in engaging them through problem-solving activities. 

In his experience, children work better with scenarios and problems rather than general topics. Giving them a practical benefit like solving a problem draws children into the subject and makes them excited about science. 

Because the RoverBot Challenge is something no one in their experience has done before, they feel “allowed to fail” and are thus, unafraid to experiment and make mistakes. 

“So many skills can be reinforced by experimenting and thinking, making mistakes and figuring out what went wrong,” he said. “And when they accomplish the task, it boosts their confidence and makes them feel positive about themselves.” 

While some may consider working with robots a technical task, Dr Reddy says accomplishing the Challenge successfully actually depends on communication between the team members. 

Demonstrating the importance of communication, he shared the time a special needs group beat a team that had the daughter of a national-level robotics champion as a member at the Challenge.  

Although the special needs students were expected to be disruptive and inattentive, they really worked together and discussed the task with one another, whereas the other team focused solely on programming the robot and did not communicate much with each another. 

As a result, the RoverBot programmed by the special needs students completed its mission in 16 seconds, whereas the other group’s robot was timed at 27 seconds. 

“For months after that, the special needs kids whose school was near my house, would point me out in the street as the ‘robot guy’. Some of them would even knock on my door and show me robots that they had built themselves. That was really great,” said Dr Reddy. 

“You don’t know who you are going to affect. These children might go on to be creative scientists,” he added.  

He believes that creativeness and the ability to play are vital to science, and that children have that ability.  

“Being a scientist can be fun. Most of the time, I feel like a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old body,” he smiled. 

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