Robots: the next powerful learning tool

The world’s first 3D-printed humanoid robot, Poppy, is making its way into schools, universities, and even dance classes. Created by an innovative French research team led by Dr Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, Poppy is versatile, open source and very cute.

By Cinnamon Nippard

Dr Oudeyer, who will be introducing audiences to the Poppy project on the OEB 15 Spotlight Stage, is Research Director at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria) and Ensta-ParisTech. In this capacity, he heads the Flowers Lab – a lab that focuses on lifelong learning and development in humans and robots.

He explains that Poppy was initially a research platform used for studying the role of the body in cognition. An important factor was that the project was open source, which facilitated reproducibility and cumulative science. Poppy evolved very quickly into a platform for the broader public, education, and the arts.

“The platform consists of ‘lego’ bricks of hardware and software for inventing new robots; examples of several different robots such as Poppy Humanoid and Poppy ErgoJr; a web infrastructure allowing for sharing and exchanges of ideas and uses; an interdisciplinary community; and a set of ‘ready-to-use’ pedagogical activities for teachers and science or art animators,” Dr Oudeyer explains.

In terms of education, the platform’s aim is to provide all the tools for teachers to develop STEM-subject learning programmes. This effort comprises both technological and pedagogical content, as well as the programme’s relations with society

From dance class to university

One of the most versatile aspects of the Poppy platform is how it is being used across a range of educational settings to combine the study of artistic expression with mathematics and programming. In primary schools, Poppy is primarily being used in teaching the arts, specifically in dance classes, where the robot is a tool for students to think about bodily expression.

At the high-school level, the robots are used for mathematics, engineering (3D modelling and digital fabrication), introduction to digital culture, computer science, and for experimentation in artistic contexts.

The robots are also being used in the first years of university for teaching computer science, mechanical engineering and electronics. At the master’s level, they are used in the teaching of human-robot interaction.

The Poppy project manages to sidestep common perceptions that you have to be a geek to get into programming by providing a range of engagement possibilities. Dr Oudeyer says that for starters, kids can learn about machines and programming without a computer, which is called unplugged computer science. “When it comes to teaching programming, we are using modern visual programming languages like Scratch/Snap!, which were invented to teach code at primary schools.”

Teachers and students working together

Instead of a top-down approach, Dr Oudeyer says his team develop pedagogical content directly with teachers: “We have working groups with teachers regularly at Inria, which helps us understand their needs and constraints. Then we experiment with technologies and content in their schools, observe, analyse, and then update again.”

He says that the response has been great. When using the robots in the classroom, the teachers observed that “it changes the social relationships between teachers and children. The role of the teacher naturally becomes different, helping to motivate the student to construct their own knowledge and skills by themselves. It also changes the relationships amongst teachers, creating interdisciplinary bridges amongst traditionally separated fields like mathematics, physics, languages and arts.”

The next step for the Poppy platform will be full pedagogical kits. These will be made publicly available to enable teachers with no prior expertise in robotics and computer science to do these activities.

Hear more from Dr Pierre-Yves Oudeyer at OEB 2015. He will be presenting the Poppy project on the Spotlight Stage on Thursday, December 3rd, from 16:00 – 16:30. Come with questions and be ready to join the discussion on how this emerging technology can be used as an effective learning tool.