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Learning to Code…From a Tiny Robot Teacher

If Pramod Abichandani succeeds, swarms of tiny robots will invade grade school classrooms throughout the Philadelphia area. While he’s far from an evil genius, Abichandani did have a wild idea a few years ago about how to implement a low-cost STEM curriculum based around robotics and coding. And with the help of his little, robotic sidekicks, he might just make it happen.

“The problem with teaching robotics right now is that it’s a high-cost endeavor to get the hardware and there aren’t many teaching materials out there,” Abichandani said, who joined the faculty of Drexel’s College of Engineering in 2012 after earning his PhD there in 2011. “I found this out the hard way when I started putting together a robotics curriculum for my freshmen engineering classes. Even the pricey kits weren’t that useful because the software interface was lacking. I knew we could do better.”

So Abichandani took the first small step toward solving the problem when he presented it to Drexel’s senior design symposium. He hoped to attract a group of students willing to tackle his idealistic challenge of making a robot for just $25. The decision to offer up the problem to students—en masse—not only seemed a natural choice to Abichandani, who saw Drexel’s experiential learning ethos up close while earning his doctoral degree, but it also proved to be one of many that would come to define the project as an open-source success story.

“Although the senior design group ultimately fell short of the $25-robot goal, they did a lot of excellent work and proved to me that an affordable robotics platform was within reach,” Abichandani said.

Now, just two years later, Abichandani and his team have a smart-phone-operated robot, a virtual programming environment and a suite of educational software that’s accessible enough to teach any of the four most common coding languages to kindergarteners. And their non-profit company, called LocoRobo, recently launched an Indiegogo campaign in hopes of making enough robots to put them in schools throughout the region.

The Robot

The robot platform is about the size and weight of an apple and looks something like a bug-eyed beetle on wheels. Its appearance is close enough to a character from WALL-E that you could imagine it inhabiting a child’s toy box. But inside the colorful plastic exterior is an array of Arduino open-source hardware components that make it fast, agile and highly sensory machine.

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the kids are going to interact with the robot and how they can advance their learning as they get older,” said William Fligor, one of the undergraduate students working on the project. “So in addition to making it really easy and fun to use, we also packed a ton of sensors into it, so more experienced users can program it to interact with other robots and its surroundings in fairly complex ways.”

The LocoBasiX robot, which is the standard platform, includes status LEDs, a custom main board, ultrasonic sensors, a differential drive and bluetooth connection capability. The more advanced robot, LocoXtreme, adds an accelerometer, gyroscopic sensor and motor encoders to allow for more precision movement control.

LocoBasiX components include: 1. custom main board 2. status LEDs 3. differential drive 4. ultrasonic sensor 5. lithium-ion battery

All of the components come from a community of open-source designers using the Arduino microcontroller platform. Fligor, Kyle Levin and Zack Haubach—the three undergraduates who are part of the LocoRobo team— became intimately familiar with Arduino during their freshman year when, as part of Abichandani’s class, they made a website that shows people how to turn the open hardware into components like gyroscopes, accelerometers and positioning systems.

“The reason we’ve been able to make this happen so quickly is that it’s all open-sourced,” Abichandani said. “All the technology and programming used to make and operate the robot is out there. Our team just pulled it all together to make this nice little robot with minimal cost. Now that our plans are online as well, anyone who wants our robot could make it or have it made.”

The Software

The robot can be controlled by Android or iOS devices via the LocoRobo mobile app. The ease of this interface was a necessity, in Abichandani’s eyes, when they started the project.

The app for controlling Locorobo uses a simple graphic interface for iOS or Android devices.

“Most students and teachers have access to mobile devices, so it’s not an additional expense—the app is also free to download,” Abichandani said. “It helps to have a familiar interface so users can jump right into operating the robot with basic commands.”

Users can control the robot in real time, or program a set of instructions before sending it into action.

The ease of interaction also presents a number of educational opportunities. Arduino components can be programmed using an “integrated development environment” designed to introduce the basics of programming in C, Python, Matlab and Javascript— the most common programming languages.

“We’ve realized that it’s important for students, especially younger learners, to see instant results of coding,” Abichandani said. “Our interface gives them access to the coding languages used by professional engineers, but in a way that they can instantly relate what they’re doing on the screen to what’s happening with the robot.”

Along with the program, the Drexel students developed a series of tutorials that walk students through the steps of programming basic commands for the robot in each of the four languages. The tutorials demonstrate specific set of commands that are collectively termed Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. Learning about the APIs helps introduce students to basic coding with the impetus of applying this knowledge to programming the robots.

Ultimately, using these APIs students and teachers can start exploring more sophisticated robot behavior.  All of the software is open-source and will be made available online at www.locorobo.co.


The Academy

Packaging LocoRobo for classrooms from kindergarten through college was as big a challenge as actually building the robot. Fortunately Abichandani has had plenty experience sidestepping the perils and pitfalls inherent in teaching robotics.

“One of the toughest parts is keeping everyone engaged and interested when you only have one or two robots in the classroom,” Abichandani said. “We wanted a way to make efficient use of time even when students aren’t on the robot running their program.”

Drawing on programming they developed while working on a National Science Foundation project to make virtual wind farms and solar arrays for renewable energy education models, Fligor, Haubach and Levin created a virtual environment for LocoRobo.

“Students can log into the virtual world and test their programming on a 3-D digital model of the robot, so they can be productive even while they’re waiting to use the robot.” Haubach said.

“The Academy,” as the virtual environment is called, also gives students programming tasks, like getting the robot to travel to a destination while avoiding obstacles. Any of the coding that takes place in the virtual environment can be stored in a cloud and transferred to the robot wirelessly when it’s time for the student to take their turn.

A more physical manifestation of the academy, involves team members hosting online workshops with students using the robots, or making classroom visits for in-person tutorials. With successful completion of the fundraising campaign, LocoRobo will be able to broaden the reach of these workshops and get its low-cost robots into the hands of aspiring roboticists.

“We’re dreaming that in the next five years every school district in the country will have a solid robotics program,” Abichandani said. “Whether they’re using our robot—or if they’ve used the open-source materials to come up with something even better—our hope is that LocoRobo shows that it’s possible for anyone to learn about robotics and financially feasible for any school to teach it.”

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