Engaging Robots: Innovative Outreach for Attracting Cybernetics Students

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  • IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 53, NO. 1, FEBRUARY 2010 105

    Engaging Robots: Innovative Outreach for AttractingCybernetics Students

    Richard Mitchell, Senior Member, IEEE, Kevin Warwick, Will N. Browne, Mark N. Gasson, and Jim Wyatt

    AbstractCybernetics is a broad subject, encompassing manyaspects of electrical, electronic, and computer engineering, whichsuffers from a lack of understanding on the part of potentialapplicants and teachers when recruiting students. However, oncethe engineering values, fascinating science, and pathways to re-warding, diverse careers are communicated, appropriate studentscan be very interested in enrolling. At the University of Reading,Reading, U.K., a key route for outreach to prospective studentshas been achieved through the use of robots in interactive talks atschools, competitions (often funded by Public Understanding ofScience projects), a collectable fortnightly magazine, exhibitionsin museums, open days at the University, and appearances in themedia. This paper identifies the interactive engagement, anthropo-morphic acceptability, and inspirational nature of robots as beingkey to their successful use in outreach activities. The statisticalresults presented show that the continued popularity of degrees atReading in cybernetics, electronic engineering, and robotics overthe last 20 years is in part due to the outreach activities to schoolsand the general public.

    Index TermsAndroids, cybernetics, education, engagingrobots, interactive robotics, outreach.

    I. INTRODUCTION

    S TUDENTS who would be very suited to an engineering de-gree through their general interests and skill sets may notapply to such a course due to a lack of understanding of engi-neering disciplines. One such discipline is cybernetics, the studyof control and communication in the animal and the machine,which is not part of the modern school curriculum in the U.K.As a result, prospective students and teachers generally do notappreciate its benefits.

    At the University of Reading, Reading, U.K., cybernetics ispart of the School of Systems Engineering. In conjunction withcomputer science and with electronic engineering, a variety ofdegrees are offered across the spectrum of the subject. Over thelast 20 years, a number of initiatives have been undertaken thathave succeeded in increasing and maintaining a healthy numberof undergraduates.

    In the early 1990s, the department began a process of visits bystaff to schools as part of a student recruitment program. Thesevisits comprised a general talk on cybernetics as an introduction

    Manuscript received January 31, 2009; revised May 05, 2009. First publishedSeptember 09, 2009; current version published February 03, 2010.

    R. Mitchell, K. Warwick, and W. N. Browne are with the Cybernetics Group,School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AH,U.K. (e-mail: w.n.browne@reading.ac.uk).

    M. N. Gasson and J. Wyatt are with the Cybernetics Group, School of SystemsEngineering, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AH, U.K., and also withKablamm Ltd., Reading RG6 1PL, U.K.

    Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TE.2009.2024932

    to the subject rather than as an introduction to the department atReading. As such, many invitations were received to speak ei-ther as part of general studies programs, or to science clubs. Atalk on its own could be quite dry, so various demonstrations ofcybernetic principles were also taken along. One such demon-stration was a simple wheeled mobile robot that could detect itsenvironment with simple sensors and move accordingly. Thisproved to be very successful at generating interest, and so mosttalks ended with the robot running around avoiding obstacles.The visits program itself proved successful, with applicationstrebling over a few years.

    This wheeled robot evolved through a series of designs,ultimately becoming a modular robot that could demonstrate avariety of simple preprogrammed behaviors. In addition, facili-ties were added enabling it to be programmed, which allowedschoolchildren to control the robot interactively. Sometimesthis has happened during summer schools arranged as part ofwidening participation projects (government-funded schemesto encourage university education for those whose backgroundswould normally make this less likely) or schemes aimed atencouraging more female students. Also, as part of PublicUnderstanding of Science schemes, competitions have beenorganized for younger schoolchildren to program the robots.Although the basic robot is the same, different ways, appro-priate to the level of the child, are used to program the robot.

    The modular nature of the robots has also meant that they nowform the basis of year-1 experiments and projects in years 24 ofthe cybernetics degrees. This is important as the more advancedversions of these robots in turn provide demonstrations that areused in open days for prospective students.

    Further outreach using the robots has included their use asexhibits in various museums and appearances in the media andtours. Cybernetics students are also asked to give talks, often atthe school they attended, where they often take a robot to goodeffect.

    The successful talks to schools inevitably led to the questionfrom children: Can we build our own robot? The solution tothis was a joint venture with a magazine publisher resulting in amagazine series, Ultimate Real Robots, that was available tothe general public and with which the modular parts of a robot,a development on the earlier wheeled robots, were provided. Asignificant aim was also to reach out to members of the public,many of whom would be potential students or parents of suchstudents, and so in addition to describing the robot, the magazinehad articles relating to aspects of robotics and cybernetics atReading and elsewhere. The series sold over 23 million copies ofthe magazine and contributed to 500 000 domestic robots beingbuilt worldwide. This is described in detail later in the paper.

    0018-9359/$26.00 2009 IEEE

  • 106 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 53, NO. 1, FEBRUARY 2010

    Fig. 1. Simple wheeled robot shown in (left) schematic form, and (right) three of the complete Seven Dwarves robots.

    Entertaining extracurricular activities, especially competi-tions and challenges, has proved to be another excellent wayof establishing a sustained interest in science and engineeringamong young people. To capitalize on this, the first AndroidsAdvance! humanoid robot tournament was launched by theUniversity of Reading in 2007 as a pilot study to assess theformat and infrastructure of such a public engagement tool andto raise awareness of a proposed subsequent nationwide tour-nament. By basing the tournament on contemporary roboticstechnology, it is believed that even casual viewers among thegeneral public might also consider the underlying science andtechnology issues involved.

    The next sections give more details on these various activities,together with some analysis of the work in terms of the popu-larity of the activities and its positive effect on applications tocybernetics.

    II. DEVELOPMENT OF A SIMPLE WHEELED ROBOTFOR OUTREACH

    The basic version of the robots developed at Reading has twosimple ultrasonic sensors, known as eyes, which allow it todetermine whether the nearest object is closer to its left eye orright eye and how far away the object is from that eye [1]. Theinformation from the sensors is passed to a brain whose out-puts control the speed and direction of the two motors on therobot. The brain determines how the robot moves given onlythe current information from the sensors; it cannot rememberpast information. Initially, the brain was just an EEROM witha lookup table. Later, it became a microprocessor, giving it thepotential for more complicated actions, although often the mi-croprocessor was still only used to move the robot accordingto a similar lookup table. The robot also has mode switchesto allow different behaviors to be selected. A schematic of therobot is shown in Fig. 1.

    A. Using the Robots in Outreach and PedagogyUsing an intuitive software program that simulates the robot

    in an environment, the user is able to devise and test a strategyfor the robot to move based on what behavior he/she wishesthe robot to exhibit. The program then creates a lookup table filethat can be downloaded to the robot via a USB port. Users arerequired to decide how the robot should move given the infor-mation from the sensors, and this can be implemented in twoways. Using a programming approach, the user implements thestrategy by writing a function that sets the speeds of the motor,

    TABLE ISIMPLE TABLE FOR PROGRAMMING ROBOTS

    which is interpreted by the program. Part of this function, whichspecifies the speeds of the left and right motor given the currentsensor range and closertolefteye Boolean, has the form

    This has worked well for older school children (1418 yearsold). However, for younger children, it is also possible to specifythe actions by filling in a simplified table of the form shown inTable I.

    Having devised the strategy, the children test and refine it inthe simulated environment. Once content that their algorithmis correct, the lookup table is downloaded onto the real robot,and the robot is set on the floor to see if it behaves correctly.However, they are warned: Beware that simulations are notexactthey only mimic the robot approximately. Typically,the first objective is to get the robot to move around its envi-ronment avoiding obstacles, then to get the robot to follow anobject, and then to get it to follow along a wall.

    This concept has been used successfully with children ages6 up to the undergraduate level for over 15 years, teaching con-cepts from control, programming, and problem solving. Gener-ally, the students do well and find that deliberately programmingthe robots to crash is boring as they only move the once, whileprogramming them to just miss objects is more challenging andfar more enjoyable. Once the students have started to think in areactive programming way, they seem to find it largely intuitive[2]. When it has been used in summer schools and at schools,greater supervision is provided, but otherwise it is unchanged.The summer school programs involve a variety of topics, so the

  • MITCHELL et al.: ENGAGING ROBOTS: INNOVATIVE OUTREACH FOR ATTRACTING CYBERNETICS STUDENTS 107

    Cybernetics practical is typically only one small part of a weekof activities. However, comments from the organizers say thatmost students consider that session to be one of the most inter-esting, and some participants have subsequently joined a cyber-netics degree at Reading. It should be noted that, although thebehaviors are simplistic, people tend to anthropomorphize therobots a great deal rather than adopting a purely technical ex-planation of function [3]. In part, this may have something todo with the apparent face made up of the sensor configuration,which is often noted. This seems to enhance the appeal of therobots, especially to those less likely to be captured by a dry en-gineering topic.

    B. Museum Exhibits

    The robots have also played an important role in being placedon display in museums on many occasions. This not only ful-fills a permanent role of appealing to potential students, but itserves the purpose of widening dissemination to a broad sec-tion of the population. Due to the rigorous procedures requiredby a museum operating scenario, it also confers a degree ofstatusnot all science is presented by a respectable museum,only that which is worthy.

    Variants of the robots described (e.g., Mitchell et al. [4] andKelly et al., [5], [6]) initially made an appearance in the ScienceMuseum, London, U.K., as part of an interactive display for anEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council messagedepicting what is good about U.K. science. One robot in its en-closed corral could be started up by a member of the public,at which point it went through a 3-min routine learning howto move around without bumping into the wallsmeaning thepublic could actually see the robot learning. The robot had tobe robust and capable of operating on a daily basis for over sixmonths. After being in the Science Museum, the robot went ona tour of other U.K. science museums, including Newcastle andDerby. A further group of interacting robots were constructedthat could interact in a number of ways such as follow mode orescape mode for Ars Electtronica in Linz, Austria, and again forthe Think Tank in Birmingham, U.K. In 2004, a group of a newversion of the robot went on permanent display in the newlyopened Wellcome Wing section of the Science Museum. Thisrequired a specially constructed powered floor for the robots,which were redesigned with power pick-ups on their base. Atthe press of a button, a person viewing the display could requestthe robots to operate in follow-the-leader role, learn, cluster orescape mode [7], [8].

    In 2008, the microprocessor control of the robot was replacedby a cultured neural network [9]. This involved growing a bi-ological brain under controlled conditions and linking it viaa Bluetooth connection to the physical robot body situated ina corral. This robot went into a specially constructed display(though, in this case, not interactive) at the London Science Mu-seum at the beginning of October 2008. At the time of writingin 2009, this display is still active. When this robot was first re-leased to the media in August 2008, it was reported on in anarticle in New Scientist magazine [10]. The associated video ofthe robot has now been viewed approximately 2.5 million times.

    C. National and International Media

    A further area in which the robots have been extremely usefulin terms of appealing to potential students is in assisting inobtaining media coverage in all aspects, particularly TV ap-pearances and newspaper reports, but also assisting with soundbites on radio interviews. The actual appearances of cyberneticsrobots on television have included main news items around theworld, childrens programs, major international documentaries,and chat shows.

    In some cases, such as in the BBC TV childrens programBlue Peter, the robots have themselves been the focus of theitem in question. On yet other occasions, their capabilities havebeen the point of focus, as on Stargate SG-1: True Science.They have also been the practical indicator of what robot ma-chines may be able to do in the future on many appearances,as in Future Fantastic and The Sci-Fi Files. In other inter-views, the sheer visual appeal in terms of colors and movementhas obtained prolonged air time, as in Modern Marvels.

    It is important to remember that media coverage has manyroles to play. It is an important ambassador for the courses of-fered, and it provides a stamp of approval because of the rep-utation of the TV channels. However, it is understandably anextremely competitive area. Obtaining 5 min of air time on aprogram viewed by several million people around the world isworth a considerable amount of...

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