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Educating robots: How a school in Italy is using them to learn language and drama

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Educational robots in an Italian school
Educational robots in an Italian school -
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Irene Dominioni
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Robots have traditionally been used as educational props in mathematics, science or technology.

But one school in Italy is now taking a different approach.

Teachers there have been using them to educate youngsters in non-technical subjects like drama or the Italian language.

“The project was born out of a bit of madness, and also out of interest for the future of teaching,” said Luca Raina, Italian literature teacher and trainer in digital teaching methods, one of the project’s masterminds.

“Robots will increasingly be present in our lives, so we must learn to interact with them. It is essential for school to get closer to new technologies and approach them with a critical mind.”

The project saw a class of 10-year-olds at Istituto Comprensivo Statale Toscanini — a middle school about 40 kilometres north-west of Milan — put on a play that used robots instead of humans.

They had wheels, a screen to display a face and speakers to relay a voice.

The youngsters were the play’s directors, screenwriters, scenographers and costume designers.

They wrote theatre scripts that were then programmed into the robots through an interface and subsequently performed on stage.

The setting of the play is an imaginary zoo.

The project, which took about four months, developed in three different directions: a mechanical-engineering section involving the use of the robots and interface; an Italian language-related activity entailing the creation of the story and the dialogues, and a pedagogical element tackling conflict resolution and related skills, namely communication, cooperation and teamwork.

The technical part of the project in Italy — namely the construction of the three robot-protagonists and the interface to operate them — was developed from the second mastermind of the project, Angela Bravo, a robotics engineer from Colombia who specialises in educational robots.

“These are modular robots constituted by four main components: a mobility module, a central module, which is the “brain” of the robot, a screen portraying their face and emotions, and a speaker to reproduce their voice,” explained the researcher. “To allow the dramatisation for the students I created an interface. The idea is to use a storytelling format for kids who do not have programming experience.”

The pupils were in charge of customising the costumes and using the interface to programme the scripts into the robots’ systems.

“The innovative element is that we introduced multiple robots to perform the play. There is no established method to develop drama activities with robots, so in a way, we did something unprecedented,” Bravo added.

In their attempt to ride the innovation wave, schools are increasingly introducing robotics into their teaching.

But, Bravo explained, training programmes are still reserved for IT teachers and most other professors don’t know how to use these technologies to innovate education.

“Over the past years... we have seen a waterfall of money for new technology (in schools), but actually, most of the new hardware just ends up catching dust in a corner,” adds Raina.

“The technology is there, but we are still lacking the educational approach to use it effectively.

“It is a problem of teachers’ training, of the Ministry of Education who does not really know what they want from these ‘teachers of the future’ and, above all, of a lack of creativity.”

Moreover, the Italian school system remains stuck in a discrepancy of access between different institutions.

Despite the new national digital plan — the Piano Nazionale Scuola Digitale was launched in 2015 — additional innovation funds are distributed by the Ministry of Education on the basis of public calls for school projects. It is a system that is rewarding for the most advanced schools, but which also creates gaps for those who start from a lower base.

“There are schools that excel at this because they already have the competencies and vision, but in other environments, it is even doubtful that the teachers can do their regular work properly, so these schools are doomed to be left out of the innovation funds”, said Raina.

He claims the future lies in the marrying of schools and technology.

“I am convinced that robotics and creative teaching can develop together, though it’s difficult because the technology itself is complex,” said Raina.

“The challenge is to make it ‘invisible’, so that it can be easily integrated into teaching methods without having to understand how it works.

“Angela’s interface works in this way: it is very easy and intuitive because it allows to simply type in words instead of coding.”

Overall, the students agree that the project has made school more enjoyable for them.

“We are very lucky with professor Raina, and the other kids in school are jealous because they don’t get to work with robots,” said Marta, one of the students involved in the project.

“What I enjoyed the most was recording my voice for the robot,” added Elisa, another student.

“We did not agree on the dialogues, but we put our thoughts together and we found a compromise.”

Indeed, from simply being a theme for the robotic plays, conflict resolution became an occasion for positive human interaction.

“Technology is a medium, not the ends,” Raina said. “Kids do not go to school to learn how to programme a computer, that is what a technical school does. The aim of compulsory education is to teach competencies and to do it also through digital tools.”

This suggests, in the end, that even though it’s moving towards widespread use in school, technology might not always be crucial to the teaching.

“In the Nordic system school offers empathy and meditation classes, kids take classes in the outdoors, and they learn to do practical things. We think oddly of these initiatives, but every teacher should understand that even explaining about the trees in a forest means teaching science or geography. We don’t need a computer for everything.”