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Technology

Bringing Robots into the Classroom

Inexpensive (and cute!) machines can work wonders as teaching tools. 

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Schoolchildren in Buffalo, New York, interact with a Navy robot. | U.S. Navy

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Something cute and pocket-size is showing up in schools all over the world this fall. No, it’s not Flat Stanley. It’s Sparki, the newest robot from ArcBotics.

In 2011, ArcBotics co-founder Joe Schlesinger decided to develop relatively inexpensive robots as teaching tools. First off the drawing board was Hexy the Hexapod, which, among other things, marches, dances, waves and types (after a fashion; it will hit the same two keys over and over).

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<h3>Hexy the Hexapod</h3><li>Size: About 1 foot in diameter</li><li>Weight: 3 pounds</li><li>Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X</li><li>Range: 10 to 20 feet with remote control</li><li>Cost: $250</li> | James Forbes/Discover
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<h3>Sparki</h3><li>Size: 6 inches long, 4.5 inches across</li><li>Weight: 12 ounces, excluding batteries</li><li>Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X</li><li>Range: 30 feet with Bluetooth (a radio model in development could extend the range to approximately 100 feet)</li><li>Cost: $149, with Bluetooth included</li>Watch <a href="http://youtu.be/CkChRyH1E3I">this video</a> of Sparki in action! | James Forbes/Discover

Following in Hexy’s six-legged footsteps is Sparki, which can react to light, draw its name on a sheet of paper and tote up to 10 pounds on its back, if the weight is balanced correctly.

The little workhorse also can push or drag objects across surfaces with low friction. Sparki uses the open-source electronics platform Arduino and comes fully assembled, ready to operate, Bluetooth included.

Drag-and-drop programming, enabled when Sparki is hooked up to a computer, makes it easy for kids to learn the basics of how human commands translate into robot actions.

“Our goal is to get kids who don’t really know electronics or robotics to interact with it and get them to trust in science,” says Schlesinger.

Setting a modest goal of $13,000 on Kickstarter for Hexy, Schlesinger and co-founder Connie Hu raised more than $168,000. Using the same fundraising model for Sparki, they garnered $188,786. Sparki went into production in June and was scheduled to arrive in classrooms in October.

Sparki is suggested for ages 11 and up, but Hu notes it’s user-friendly enough to teach (and entertain) any school-age child.

 “Take Sparki out of the box, and he’s ready to go when you plug him in via the USB port on your computer,” says Hu.

Sparki’s “arms” may be a mere inch long, but his reach is worldwide. Pilot programs are already set up in schools from Mexico to Norway. Tutorials and individual classroom lesson plans will be available for anyone purchasing the ‘bot.

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