Stuff we like about Robotics

Robotics VSI2We’ve just added a page of Stuff we like about Robotics. We want to provide some background to the Robotics materials we have published for teachers as a part of the Disruptive Technologies project and so we’ve gathered together some books, websites and other materials that we have found useful in developing our thinking about robotics as a disruptive technology.

To help with navigating what turned out to be quite a large collection, the resources are grouped into what we hope are useful areas for teachers:

Start here
Teaching robotics
Influences on robot design
The Personal; how robots and humans shape each other
The Social; the impact of robots on society
Building robots

The aim is that stuff that appears on this page will remain relevant over a reasonable time. However there is also a constant stream of robotics news at the moment, much of which is ephemeral but could be of use in your teaching. Clearly, if you have the time and interest, you could pick up a lot of these yourself by visiting sites like the BBC, Wired or MIT’s Technology Review. More easily (for many) you could also follow David on Twitter as he often shares these kinds of items. In addition to all of that, we’ll occasionally publish on this blog a compendium of robotics news items that we think might be intriguing, surprising or otherwise compelling.

If you have recommendations for resources that should appear on this page, or interesting news items that we might blog about, please do let us know.

Augmented Reality Teacher Briefing now available; but with a word of warning

Augmented Reality (AR) is one of the disruptive technologies we have identified as suitable for teaching in secondary school.

AR is a live, direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

A longer definition is that AR is a real-time direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment that is enhanced or augmented by adding virtual computer-generated information to it. Accordingly, an AR system: (i) combines real and virtual objects in a real environment, (ii) aligns real and virtual objects with each other so that as the view to a real object changes, the augmented object connected to it changes accordingly, and (iii) runs interactively, in three dimensions, and in real-time. AR technologies enhance human perception and help seeing, hearing, and feeling the surrounding environment in new and enriched ways. This is achieved by making people sense virtual objects, which appear to coexist in the real world. AR can also be used to hide visual elements of the real world to allow people to focus on specific aspects (Diminished Reality).

AR TBAR is distinguished from Virtual Reality (VR) systems in which the user is immersed in a computer-generated environment that completely replaces sensory input from the real world.

The AR Teacher Briefing is now available, but before we enthuse about this and other new and emerging technologies it is prudent to inject a note of caution. There is often public disquiet about new and emerging technologies, especially those that are seen as disruptive. Government and industry are often bemused by this rejection in the face of what seems to them the obvious benefits of such technologies. The rejection of genetically modified foods by the public in the United Kingdom is one such example.

Phil Macnaghten

Professor Phil Macnaghten and his co-workers have investigated this by recording talk about emerging technologies in a range of focus groups composed mainly of lay people with little technical knowledge about such technologies. Interestingly the analysis of the talk revealed five underlying cultural narratives describing attitudes/beliefs towards such technologies that embodied this disquiet. These narratives were:

  1. Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of Desire
  2. Being kept in the dark – the narrative of Alienation
  3. Messing with nature – the narrative of the Sacred
  4. Pandora’s box – the narrative of Evil and Hope
  5. The rich get richer – the narrative of Exploitation.

We believe that it would be wrong to dismiss such concerns out of hand and also that it is important for teachers to be aware that they might exist amongst their pupils. There is an analogy here with the idea of pupils’ alternative constructs in science. Simply telling pupils that such ideas are wrong in no way helps them to change their minds. Similarly dismissing concerns about new technologies that are in fact based on deeply believed ‘cultural narratives’ would almost certainly be counterproductive. Our position is that we would not want the teacher’s position to prevent pupils acknowledging their sympathy towards the narratives. Overall we want pupils to use critique in an informed but not overly skeptical way and engage with the narratives in a way that is neither completely dismissive nor totally accepting.

Phil’s research goes further than simply identifying such concerns. He wants the public to be engaged in the innovation process much earlier; having a voice that informs what science and technology ‘does’ in society. He is concerned with the democratization of the development and deployment of technology. This is very much in line with the thinking of the Disruptive Technologies Project.

You can see and hear Phil describe his research in this short video clip:

And as a cautionary tale this science fiction short describes a future world in which robotics and AR overlap:

So given what Phil’s research has revealed and the sci-fi cautionary tale above, what might we want our pupils to consider when speculating about future uses of AR?


The Chemistry in D&T

Chemical elementsI used to be a chemistry teacher so I was very pleased to read the article Chemical Elements in the latest issue of D&T Practice. Using the aesthetics of chemistry to inspire design is a novel approach to stimulating creativity. I do remember teaching the ‘controlled explosion’ mentioned in the article – the thermite reaction if I’m not mistaken, in which aluminium, being more reactive than iron grabs the oxygen from iron oxide in a spectacular redox reaction forming aluminium oxide and leaves behind a very hot blob of molten iron. The reaction is used to join railway tracks. This reaction should intrigue D&T teachers. If aluminium is MORE reactive than iron how come we use aluminium for saucepans. Shouldn’t they corrode more rapidly than iron which generally rusts very quickly in moist air. The answer of course is that iron oxide does not adhere strongly to the underlying iron, falling off and revealing more iron to undergo reaction with the moist air. Aluminium on the other hand oxidises in air to form an oxide layer that is strongly bonded to the underlying aluminium thus protecting this aluminium from further reaction. This foray into the reactivity series led me to wonder about the role of chemistry in D&T beyond that of inspirational aesthetics. School chemistry courses in England deal with electrolysis at Key Stage 4 and pupils will be taught about the deposition of copper atoms from a solution contain copper ions by means of an electric current. This deposition by electrolysis provides the possibility of laying down copper onto brass. Simple brass body adornments can be embellished with intricate copper patterns in this way. And then I remembered a wonderful book from the Crafts Council – The Colouring, Bronzing and Patination of Metals – a splendid collection of recipes for altering the colour of copper and brass. Embedding a piece of brass in sawdust moistened with ammonium carbonate solution gives rise to a strongly adhering green patina as speckles where the sawdust has made contact with the metal. Even more impressive is the reaction of red-hot copper with steam and boiling water which gives the copper a wonderfully rich deep red colour. So if you are thinking of teaching a body adornment project you might consider asking your pupils to explore some chemical reactions as a precursor.

A colleague asked, “Why would a D&T teacher bother with all this, after all it’s not on the syllabus?” Two answers spring to mind. First and foremost, the pupils might find it interesting and secondly, links with science are an important facet of D&T and a key feature of the new D&T GCSE.

And whilst I’m in the chemistry – D&T zone I note that it’s through the application of the reactivity series that we can get metals from rocks. A standard Key Stage 3 chemistry practical is roasting malachite to turn it into copper oxide and then roasting the copper oxide with charcoal to get metallic copper. To get enough copper to make a small body adornment such as a ring or a brooch the reaction would need to be scaled up so special care would be needed. Something one might do in an afterschool STEM club with a group of interested pupils. Starting with a small bag of green rock and ending up with a copper bracelet would surely be a great chemistry D&T experience. And if you do try using chemistry in your D&T lessons then do please let David and Torben know all about it.

Commons enquiry in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Robotics TGThe House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are holding an enquiry into Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. David and Torben submitted written evidence which says, in a nut shell, ‘teach young people about them at school through D&T lessons that encourage them to consider the consequences of deploying technologies’. Clearly our Disruptive Technologies Project is aimed to help teachers do just that. And as if on cue The Robotics Teaching Guide is now available here, later than expected but we think you’ll find it useful. As always comments much appreciated.