Science & Technology
7:00 am
Mon August 13, 2012

Arts, Crafts, & Robots: New Kit Brings Technology to Classrooms

Most teachers are preparing for the upcoming school year by organizing markers, pencils, and notebooks, but others will spend the next few weeks fiddling with wires, sensors and motherboards. Dozens of teachers across the region will help their students build robots this fall with the new “Hummingbird” robotics craft kit created by a local startup company.

Teachers in any classroom can infuse robotics into commonplace arts and crafts materials to make sculptures that move, talk, and even sense objects -- for example, a green cardboard dragon that chomps at any hand that gets too close, or a replica of the Star Wars robot R2D2 that slides and chirps just like its namesake. It’s meant to inject creativity into the sometimes dry process of programming robots, according to Hummingbird co-creator and Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh.

“When you combine creativity and technology, then you access the intelligences children have in new ways,” said Nourbakhsh. “You’ll find the most creative girls and boys, who weren’t as excited about straight technology, you’ll find that sometimes they will leapfrog the technology geeks and make better robots, because they’re so creatively facile that when you give them the chance to use technology as an outlet for their creativity, they get way ahead.”

Nourbakhsh said the ultimate goal is to introduce creative, “right-brained” people – especially girls -- to career options in science and technology fields. “If the companies are just trying to hire a programmer who can just program on spec, that’s not exciting,” said Nourbakhsh. “But if it’s the case that we can turn people into producers, into creative inventors, then if companies are looking for people who can take technology and turn, with technology, something that’s compelling and exciting and new – that starts to be interesting to me.”

Another Hummingbird co-creator, Tom Lauwers, created the CMU spinoff company that now sells the Hummingbirds to teachers – it’s called BirdBrain Technologies. Lauwers said he’s sold about 300 of the Hummingbird kits so far. He said each classroom usually needs about ten kits so everyone can take part. All of his customers are in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but Lauwers is marketing the Hummingbirds at teacher conferences nationwide.

“I’m trying to create clusters, like we have a cluster here of experienced teachers in Western P.A.,” said Lauwers. “I’m trying to create similar clusters in other places in the country. I just went to the Bay Area and showed the Hummingbird to a few people there, and hopefully that will become another cluster.” The co-creators said they would welcome mass production of the Hummingbirds to get the kits into retail stores. Nourbaskhsh said it’s his dream to see a Hummingbird on the shelf in a chain of arts and crafts stores, like Michael’s. For now, the Hummingbird Kits are only available online.