It all starts with Lego. Many children the world over have sat in front of the brightly coloured building blocks and dreamt of constructing a robot, house, dog, spaceship or even a working airplane.
Whether we knew it or not, those dreams, the ones where our Lego creations come to life, are quite literally coming to life today thanks to the robotics movement going mainstream.
Robotics is a branch of engineering that deals with designing, building and operating robots. I’m not talking about Terminator-style, gun-wielding, overthrow-the-Earth type robots.
I’m talking about robots that can make music, switch lights on, open fridge doors, crawl around the room on three wheels and any other basic moving object programmed to do something amazing.
Raspberry Pi innovation
There are varying degrees of what is being termed the ’Maker Movement’. Some attribute the popularisation of this movement to a tiny little device playfully named the Raspberry Pi.
The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, with the intention of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools. Basically it’s a programmable computer that can be used as the basis of anything requiring a computer.
That walking Lego dog you made when you were ten that just wouldn’t walk? The Raspberry Pi could be used to make it walk, if you know the right commands.
Make your own robot
As simple as the Raspberry Pi seems to make robotics (or at the very least the start of a robotic way of teaching and thinking), it’s just the start. There are some incredible projects that have taken the leap into the idea of making. One such project is the Kano. Kano is a computer that you make yourself.
It arrives with all of its parts but they are not assembled. The box it arrives in has a brain (a Raspberry Pi-like motherboard that is programmable), a case, a speaker, a keyboard and all the relevant bits and bobs to pull together the perfect computer suited to your needs. The creators believe it can help you programme games, create music and much more.
The incredible thing about the Maker Movement is that it’s happening everywhere. There are kids in Kenya who are helping to protect their livestock by making alarm systems that prevent lions from hunting their sheep.
There are groups of people in Cape Town who believe that Lego-wielding children can help teach adults new ways to think about the world and approach problems.
There are even inventors abroad who are using conductive ink to paint instruments onto canvas and, using a Raspberry Pi, play music using those painted instruments.
With the basic technology hardware becoming so widely accessible and cheap enough for anyone to order on the Internet, the inventions, discoveries and play time is boundless.
Putting science and maths to use
South Africa is lagging behind many parts of the world when it comes to basic mathematics and science skills at younger ages. Robotics and the Maker Movement are being used to inspire children to understand relevant use cases for their maths and science skills.
The hope is that a practical approach will inspire more children to take maths and science seriously and invest in their futures as computer science engineers, coders and inventors.
The shift towards creating, inventing and problem solving has taken such huge leaps forward that there is even a global Lego robotics tournament that over 200 000 children between the ages of nine and 16, from over 70 countries competed in over a weekend in November 2013.
- Raspberry Pi: www.raspberrypi.org/
- Ort SA Robotics Clubs: www.ortsacape.org.za/robotics.html
- Home School Robotics: www.kiddiwinks.co.za/homeschools
- Kano Computers: www.kano.me/