Two years ago, Swedish communications technology giant Ericsson found itself looking for a way to explain the value it saw in the Internet of Things. Rather than publish another whitepaper on the topic, the company struck on a different communication tool: Legos. More specifically, Lego robots.
Ericsson used Lego Mindstorm robots in a demonstration at the 2012 Mobile World Congress to bring to life its vision of how connected machines might change the way we live. A laundry-robot sorted socks by color and placed them in different baskets while it chatted with the washing machine. A gardening-robot watered the plants when the plants said they were thirsty. A cleaner-robot collapsed and trashed empty cardboard coffee cups that it collected from the table, and a dog-like robot fetched the newspaper when the alarm clock rang.
Social Networking for LEGO Mindstorms Robots
Rather than merely talking or writing about its vision, Ericsson saw robots as a perfect medium for explaining its ideas. This is more than just a smart marketing campaign. As a variety of researchers have argued, it may offer a way to better equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Training programs that encourage the use of robots to achieve goals – not just by playing with them, but by building them — encourage participants to use their creativity and natural curiosity to overcome problems through hands-on experiences.
Lego’s Mindstorm robots (or education and innovation kits as they are sometimes known) were developed in collaboration with MIT Media Lab as a solution for education and training in the mid to late 90’s. The work was an outcome of research by Professor Seymour Papert, who was co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab with Marvin Minsky. Papert later co-founded the Epistemology and Learning Group within the MIT Media Lab. Papert’s work has had a major impact on how people develop knowledge, and is especially relevant for building twenty-first century skills.
Papert and his collaborators’ research indicates that training programs using robotics influences participants’ ability to learn numerous essential skills, especially creativity, critical thinking, and learning to learn or “metacognition”. They also emphasize important approaches to modern work, like collaboration and communication.
This form of learning is called constructionism, and it is premised on the idea that people learn by actively constructing new knowledge, not by having information “poured” into their heads. Moreover, constructionism asserts that people learn with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in “constructing” personally meaningful artifacts. People don’t get ideas; theymake them.
Papert’s influential book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas as well as extensive scientific research into fields such as cognition, psychology, evolutionary psychology, and epistemology illustrate how this pedagogy can be combined with robotics to yield a powerful, hands-on method of training.
In training courses that use robotics, the program leader sets problems to be solved. Teams are presented with a box of pieces and simple programs that can run on iPads, iPhones, or Android tablets and phones. They are given basic training in the simple programming skills required and then set free to solve the problem presented.
Problems can be as ‘simple’ as building a robot to pass through a maze in a certain time frame, which requires trial and error and lots of critical thinking. What size wheels to use for speed and maneuverability, what drain on battery power, which sensors to use for guidance around walls. One team may decide to build a small drone to view and map out the terrain of the maze, this would require theorizing on the weight of the robotic drone and relaying data filmed to a mapping system which the on-ground robot could use to negotiate through the maze.
It is an entirely goal-driven process.
Participants get to design, program, and fully control functional robotic models. They use software to plan, test, and modify sequences of instructions for a variety of robotic behaviors. And they learn to collect and analyze data from sensors, using data logging functionalities embedded in the software. They gain the confidence to author algorithms, which taps critical thinking skills, and to creatively configure the robot to pursue goals.
Participants from all backgrounds gain key team building skills through collaborating closely at every stage of ideation, innovation, deployment, evaluation and scaling. At the end of the training teams are required to present their ideas and results, building effective communication skills.
It is quite astonishing to see how teams have developed robots to achieve tasks such as solving Rubik’s cubes in seconds, playing Sudoku and drawing portraits, creating braille printers, taking part in soccer and basketball games. These robots have even been used for improving ATM security.
Using robots in training programs to overcome challenges pushes participants out of their comfort zone. It deepens their awareness of complexity and builds ownership and responsibility.
The array of skills and work techniques that this kind of training offers is more in need today than ever, as technology is rapidly changing the skills demanded in the workplace.
Instead of programming people to act like robots, why not teach them to become programmers, creative thinkers, architects, and engineers? For companies seeking to develop these skills in their employees, hands-on goal-focused training using robots can help.
This post initially appeared on Harvard Business Review