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On a chilly autumn day, robots descended on Altamont Elementary School in Altamont, New York. Were the students terrified? Far from it: they were enchanted and energized, as they explored the realm of social robotics under the guidance of Jennifer Goodall and Katy DeCorah of the University at Albany-State University of New York (UAlbany). Goodall and DeCorah presented UAlbany's Social Robotics Workshop, an innovative program designed to introduce K-12 students to the roles that robots might play in the future and to excite young people about technology in general.
The brainchild of Goodall, assistant dean of the Department of Informatics, and Nick Webb, senior research scientist at the university's Institute for Informatics, Logics Security Studies, the Social Robotics Workshop introduces students to the core concepts of robotics and enables them to experiment with robots and to program simple interactive behaviors. Built around the "sense, plan, act" paradigm-an approach that dates from the earliest days of robotics-the workshop challenges the students to program robots with personalities. For example, students might program their robots to politely say "Excuse me!" when they bump into someone, or they might have their robots convey annoyance through an angry expression on the "face" screen.
"Exercises using these software platforms allow students ... to try simple social robotic experiments, such as talking, indicating primitive emotions and simple vision exercises," said Goodall. The program clicks with students in large part because they can see a real connection between their simple experiments and future robotics applications. Moreover, working with the robots inspires the students to learn more about computer science and engineering, which is the key goal of the workshop.
Funding for the Social Robotics Workshop comes from the National Center for Women & Information Technology Academic Alliance Seed Fund, which is sponsored by Microsoft Research Connections, the division of Microsoft Research that collaborates with academia to help shape the future of computing. The Seed Fund provides grants "to develop and implement initiatives for recruiting and retaining women in computer science and information technology fields of study."
The Social Robotics Workshop is one of 19 projects that have received grants since the inception of the Seed Fund in 2007. To date, grants totaling more than $315,000 have been awarded. The UAlbany initiative was one of three to receive grants in round six of the Seed Fund. In the recently completed round seven of the competition, five projects won grants of $10,000 each. The winning initiatives range from programs to encourage women undergrads to major in computer science to a two-week summer outreach program aimed at high schoolers.
Back at Altamont, the success of the Social Robotics Workshop is confirmed in the thank-you notes from the students. "Dear Jen," wrote one of the young experimenters, "Thank you for helping us program our robots. It was much easier with your help. I like the way you broke it down into steps. It made it much easier. It was exciting to work with robots. It felt like we were real scientists! When I go to collage [sic] I want to do robots. THANK YOU!"
—Jane Prey, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections