This is the RobotsLab Box. It's a giant box, and it's full of robots. As if that wasn't enough, it's also full of a tablet which is full of a complete STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum that uses the robots as tools to show things like math and physics in action. The Box is designed to make it easy and affordable for teachers to drop a bunch of awesome robots right into the classroom, and even though I'm not a teacher or a student, I want one.
Inside the Box (it really is just called "the Box") you'll find an AR Drone, a Sphero robotic ball, a Mobot two-wheeled modular robot vehicle, and an Armbot robotic arm. To control them all, you also get a tablet. By itself, this wouldn't be that interesting, but what makes the Box valuable is that it's got everything on it that someone who's not a robotics expert needs to teach a classroom of 7th to 12th graders something that they might actually remember. There are detailed step-by-step instructions on how to get the robots to not crash and/or blow up, comprehensive lesson plans, and even quizzes. You get 50 different individual lessons, plus an option for 30 more.
We love this idea, but the question here is really going to be whether the included curriculum is able to justify the added expense and complexity of the robots. The Box costs $3,500, and if you were to buy the robots separately at retail prices, you'd end up paying $300 for the AR Drone, $130 for Sphero, and about $300 for the Mobot. I'm not sure exactly what the Armbot is, but if we're looking at something similar, it might set you back $400 or $500. Add a tablet for perhaps $500 on the outside, and you can duplicate all of this hardware for something under $2,000, putting a $1,500 premium on software, curriculum, and support.
So, okay. That seems generally reasonable, although we're by no means qualified to make a determination like that for teachers. Really, what we're wondering is whether or not the robots will be integrated into the curriculum in such a way that they're more than a gimmick at best, or a distraction at worst. Here's what the RobotsLab people have to say about this:
Robots are used to expose scientific principles providing a bridge between the abstract topics and the real world. Students will have to practice equation solving skills, understanding of physical forces and scientific investigation thinking in order to solve the quizzes. Each robot included in the box was carefully chosen by our team because of its ability to demonstrate the scientific principles, its ease of operation and its durability.
We got a look at one of the 50 lessons that will be included in the box, and here's a sample, focusing on something called "quadratic equations," whatever those are:
Quadratic Search & Rescue– Quadratic Formula Creation
This lesson demonstrates quadratic function based on area. The story plot behind the lesson is that a quadcopter was sent to a search and rescue mission using its bottom camera. The higher the quadcopter flies the bigger the area covered by the camera. The relationship between the height and the area covered is quadratic. (The relationship between the height and an edge of the image is linear, edge X edge is edge squared.)
This lesson demonstrates what a quadratic graph looks like and how it associates to area. It also helps to relate a quadratic function to the physical world
Students are first presented with a demonstration of how the helicopter system works along with the video camera located on the bottom of the A.R. Drone
Helicopter run through a 'demonstration mode' where it takes off and begins to hover at a certain height. The students should take note of how much area is viewable from the camera. The helicopter then climbs in elevation and pauses, followed by a drop in elevation closer to the ground. The helicopter finally lands and the demonstration is over. As the camera height is adjusted, what conclusions can you form between the relationship of the viewable area of the camera and height?
Given a situation where the dimensions of the viewable area and the height of the helicopter are known, what is a quadratic function that can be used to describe the helicopter's height in terms of viewing area?
Based on this deduced formula above, use it to figure out the height of the helicopter when the image area is given? Demonstrate this with the A.R. Drone. Use this same formula to determine the image area when the helicopter is a given distance from the ground.
You know what? I used to work for a company where I had to do exactly this. Score one for robots teaching real world skills!
Of course, there's a bunch more included in the lesson plan, like detailed checklists for teachers as well as quizzes for students that are aligned with teaching standards. Here's RobotsLab CEO Elad Inbar talking about the Box, and giving a brief example of the quadratic formula lesson:
If you recognize Elad, it's because he's also the CEO of RobotAppStore. In fact, RobotsLab is the same company- it's just the educational division, which also includes a dedicated panel of 14 teachers. It's probably not a coincidence that Grishin Robotics invested a quarter million bucks into RobotsAppStore at the end of last year, and Elad has told us that Dimitri Grishin is "involved and excited," since "[RobotsLab's] work with the educational industry is definitely aligned with his vision of how the 21st century class room should look like." We here at Spectrum take that to mean that 21st century classrooms should be full of robots, which is a sentiment that we heartily approve of.
RobotsLab Box is launching today at the Texas Computer Education Association (TECA) conference down in Texas. It looks like it's available now at the website below, and we're definitely excited to see how fast this concept catches on. We're also excited to see what else might be possible here: with all of this hardware, we'd love some lesson plans that encourage students to get their hands dirty playing with the robots themselves as well.
[ RobotsLab ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.