By Jenny Kincaid Boone
With the touch of a screen, Pepper, the robot, came to life.
Jentry Wetmore, 7, was there for it.
She started moving her hands like a musical conductor as soon as the 4-foot-tall robot began talking, playing music, and waving its plastic human-like arms, fingers, and hands. Eventually, the second grader broke into a dance right there in the library at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School in Elliston.
“It’s so fun,” Wetmore said after she slowed down to catch her breath. “I like robots.”
Her reaction matched many of the other students in the midst of a loud library scene on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Some sat on the floor trying to coax Aibo, a robot dog, to fetch a ball and walk toward them. Others experimented with oranges and a tomato that, when hooked up to a laptop, made different sounds at the touch.
There was lots of laughing, even squealing.
That’s actually the purpose of the program, which is meant to help students become familiar with the science, technology, engineering, arts, and math fields.
A team of Virginia Tech researchers is studying the ways that children process technical information while learning the fundamentals of robotics, such as controls and basic programming. But there’s more than just technology on the table.
At the end of the 13-week program, students perform a theatrical production for their families, using the robots as acting companions. The program, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, includes sections that allow the students to act, dance, draw, and listen to music. A Halloween play is planned as the finale of this Eastern Montgomery experience.
“We wanted to help children exercise their creativity and have fun while learning about robots,” said Koeun Choi, assistant professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech and one of the leaders of the project. “My main goal is to better understand development happening earlier in life and how we can use the digital environment to support children’s learning.”
The idea for a robot theater program started with Myounghoon “Philart” Jeon, an associate professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Jeon previously worked on a similar project with robots and children at Michigan Tech, before he joined Virginia Tech five years ago.
Last year, Jeon decided to bring the program to Virginia Tech, working with mostly schools in rural and underserved areas, and he recruited Choi to help. Together, the two are continuing the program beyond its initial one-year period, which was funded by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) and the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech.
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