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August 28, 2017

Kacey Templin

Robots: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Topics: STEM

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Optimus Prime, WALL-E, C-3PO. What do these all have in common? They’re all robots! Robots are helping humans perform surgery, build cars, and even explore space. They can resemble humans in shape, intelligence, and sometimes both. Some people think they’re cool, some people think they’re scary. What’s irrefutable is that they’re here to stay, and every day technology is enabling us to make them more sophisticated.

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The word “robot” comes from the Slavic word “robota,” which was a term used to describe poor peasants thatwere forced to do work for their feudal lords throughout the 19th century. The first time it was used to describe automated machines was in a 1920 play by the Czech writer, Karel Capek. Though the word was introduced in the 20th century, robots have been a part of humanity for over a thousand years. Ancient Greek Acrhytas of Tarentum described a mechanical bird that could be propelled by steam in the 4th century BC. In ancient China, King Mu of Zhou was presented with a life-size, human-shaped mechanical figure by a craftsman, according to a text written in the 3rd century BC.

One of the first recorded robot designs that looked human-like was invented by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1495. His notebooks contained detailed drawings of a mechanical knight that could sit up, wave its arms, and move its head. A few centuries later, automatic machines were prevalent as a novelty. Jacques de Vaucanson created “The Digesting Duck," which was a duck powered by weights that could flap its wings and eat grain. In the East, 18th century Japanese craftsman Hisashige Tanaka created a number of machines that could serve tea, fire arrows drawn from a quiver, and paint Japanese kanji characters.

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Robots started to go from interesting novelties to functional machines in the 19th century, when a professor at Queen’s College in Ireland introduced Boolean algebra (those zeros and ones you see in “computer speak”). This would later lead to the invention of the computer a century later.

The study of robotics really took off after 1950s with the introduction of the first digitally operated and programmable robot in 1954. Called the Unimate, the robot was used to lift hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and stack them. Breakthroughs in the field of robotics started to happen one after another, as scientists and engineers gathered more and more information on robot design. Today, nearly everyone can name a robot that helps them function daily. For me, it’s my Roomba!

Robotics today can be divided into several categories. The first category encompasses machines that are programmed to perform specific tasks, but don’t really interact with society. These are the industrial robots that work in factories to assemble cars and package pharmaceuticals. Teleoperated robots are controlled remotely by a human being, and can include underwater robots that are used to clean up oil spills or the robotic arm on the Space Shuttle. Autonomous robots are preprogrammed to work independently of human operators, detecting changes in environment and adapting on their own. Augmenting robots connect directly to the human body and gives the user a skill that they wouldn’t have naturally. This kind of technology might eventually help paralyzed people to walk again, or blind people see.

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Robots are instrumental both in everyday life and in classrooms, and have been a vital part of STEM learning for over a decade now. By learning how to build and manipulate robots, children learn to communicate through technology, and in some, it unlocks a passion that they would otherwise never have known they had.  Exposure to computational thinking in an age-appropriate manner helps children to break down a problem into its parts, understand those individual elements, and then rearrange them. Robots are also used as a tool to unlock girls’ potential in computer science subjects. When girls are exposed to robotics in elementary school, it is easier for them to buck stereotypes that say that STEM fields aren’t appropriate for girls. 

Robots can be extremely complex, like the self-driving cars that may soon hit the streets in America, but they can also be simple - simple enough that you and your family can create them yourselves using a few household items! Below are links to a few easy tutorials that you can use to create a little army of household automatons. Have your children decorate them in fun and creative ways, and talk about the implications for each robot and how they could help a person perform a specific function.

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Make a motorized coloring robot

Build a homemade propeller car

Make a hydraulic-powered robotic arm from cardboard

Robots are the tech of the future, and the implications for robotics are huge for humanity. Help your child get a leg-up in this field by introducing them to the wonders of automated mechanics early!

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