The Robot Revolution


When I was a kid, I thought when I grew up I might have a robot maid, just like Rosie on the Jetsons. But I am still waiting on that one. However, for a while now, I have been paying attention to how robots are changing our lives. As new technologies become smaller and more affordable, these machines are moving from the factory floor to our homes and communities.


For a long time, most robots were big and expensive. They did the tasks that are boring or dangerous for humans to do. A robot welder in a factory never gets tired or makes mistakes like a human welder does.

Now, robots are everywhere it seems. Where I live, agriculture is big business, and I expect that robots will soon transform the lives of the world’s farmers. This robot, being built in Australia, knows how to herd cows.

If you’ve ever tried to move cattle around, you know it is hard, and sometimes even dangerous work.

Another robot I really like is the robotic telepresence. This kind lets people visit another place seeing and moving through space such as a museum or school by using the robot.

Do you like 3-D printers? This is really a type of small robot that knows how to manufacture items through an additive process.

How about those cool quadcopters? Yep. Robot. Here’s a video a neighbor took of the town where I live.

My question to you is, if you could have any kind of robot in the world to help improve your life, what kind of robot would you get, and why? I can’t wait to hear about your dream robot!

(By the way, mine is a driverless car robot so I could sleep or do work during my morning commute!)

Amazing Valentines

Homemade Valentines Treats

These amazing Valentines were made by the wife of my Facebook friend Justin McClure. Justin owns a digital media company so it’s not surprising to me at all that his kids would have such amazing Valentine’s Day goodies at school.

Wouldn’t this make a fun school project where the kids have props and wacky poses and design their own treats to share? Although I suppose some of the fun is the surprise and amazement that happens when you receive a great treat like this from the other kids. It makes the store-bought treats and greetings pale in comparison.

Social Media Technology

Next week, a new semester begins and with it a new class I’m going to teach called Social Media Technology. I’m looking forward to this class because it is a topic I have been closely following for several years now.

Because social media technologies are so embedded in our digital lives now, there is a constant stream of relevant topics for discussion available. For example, this morning I saw this post by physics professor Dr. Chad Davies about his new podcast The Scientific Odyssey.

Scientific Odyssey Podcast

One of the many benefits of “putting yourself out there” is having the opportunity to interact with people you respect and admire. It takes guts, but it is so worth doing.
How have you been surprised by your participation online? Have you ever had one of these unexpected encounters because of your online activities? Have you interacted with celebrities, scientists, rock-stars, or other noteworthy individuals in ways impossible before the invention of social media? Please tell me about it in the comments.

I have never seen this before

I have never seen this before.

How many different times and in how many different ways have I heard this statement from a student? It is as if this statement somehow invalidates the legitimacy of what we are doing, or provides a free pass to accomplish little or nothing. It comes across as a complaint, but it should be an exclamation. Hey, we are finally doing something different, and I am learning something new!

Exposing students to something they have never encountered before is the essence of teaching; it is what education is about. But I recognize it is an uncomfortable place to be cognitively. It may be that I simply need to do a better job of reassuring students that they are up to the task. All learning is connected to previous knowledge. When possible, I make these connections known, but every student has a different set of knowledge, skills, interests and abilities, so it is a challenge to make every topic relevant and meaningful to each student.

When students say “I haven’t seen this before,” or “We haven’t learned this yet,” should a teacher get defensive or excited? I think we should be getting excited and communicate enthusiasm to our students that we are on the brink of learning something new! Unfortunately, I think sometimes complaints can bring a certain defensiveness, particularly in the later days of a calendar year, when the days are growing colder and shorter, a semester winds down and you look back at how much was (or wasn’t) accomplished. But in teaching there is always a new semester on the horizon, and new opportunities to do things a little better.

It might be a little early for new year’s resolutions, but one resolution I am making for my teaching in the coming year is when I hear “I don’t know how to do this,” or “We haven’t learned this yet,” I will be respond with enthusiasm, “Isn’t that great? You get to learn something new!”

A Lesson in Persistence

Carving a pumpkin
A computer student carves a pumpkin at the zoo

About two years ago, Katrina Lewis and I submitted a paper to a small, regional computer science conference held in my state on the subject of Halloween pumpkin carving as a design activity. 

Here is what one of the reviewers had to say about our proposal:

This would be an interesting presentation at a graphics/art pedagogy conference, but unfortunately it has little relevance in a venue discussing computer science topics. I believe the authors have picked the incorrect conference. Yes, computers are involved, but that fact alone does not make the work applicable.

One reviewer thought it was a great idea, and two thought it was terrible. Ultimately it was not accepted. Rather than give up, we kept our eyes open for a suitable venue. We found one in the Frontiers in Education Conference, held this year in Madrid, Spain.

FIE is a conference held each year that explores innovative practices in engineering education. When we saw that the conference was a week before Halloween, we felt it would be a perfect opportunity to share a bit of American culture, along with demonstrating our unique approach to teaching design principles.

One of the points our paper makes is that the current generation is accustomed to quick answers and simple solutions. Persistence in the face of adversity is a desired trait, but can be difficult to teach. Carving an excellent pumpkin cannot be done well in a few minutes, but rather it takes hours. One wrong move, and you have to re-think your whole strategy. In other words, it is an excellent opportunity to practice the art of persistence and focused attention.

I think getting this paper accepted to an international conference exemplifies the persistence we hope our students will learn. Sometimes, a rejection is not the final answer, but simply a bump along the road to something better. It took some time and perseverance, but in the end, it has paid off. Next stop: Madrid!

Inspire Her Mind

This video from Verizon suggests that the messages we are sending to girls push them away from math and sciences. I have a girl who is in middle school, and seems to have lost some of the love of learning in these areas, not because she’s been discouraged at home. I think it is much more complicated. One of the big reasons is that she is made to sit at a desk all day at school and read in books about others who have explored and learned, but rarely gets to do so herself.

At home, we have done plenty of hands-on activities, though admittedly less often in recent years than before, because I have been busy trying to finish a doctorate. Hopefully, after that is completed, there will be more time for home-based learning activities.

I also think, in general, kids don’t go outside as much and do things with their hands as much. My daughter is more inclined than most kids in this area. I haven’t yet given up hope on her entering a STEM career field, but I really don’t feel like school supports this path well.

She actually had a great year this past year in the sixth grade. Her math teacher really built her confidence up. Early on, every test day would put her in tears, but by the end of the year we rarely heard about it as she caught on and realized she could do it. The teachers are doing what they can within the constraints that they are given, but in general, I think there are to many tests and is too little joy in learning.

Next week, Emily and I will travel to K-State Salina (where I work) to do a Virtual Worlds – Minecraft Edition camp. I’m really excited to get her into object oriented programming using Minecraft and Scriptcraft. She will also be learning about electronics, and 3-D printing… several different areas of engineering and STEM. None of it will be quietly listening to adults filling their heads with information. It will instead all be about setting up an environment for learning, and letting kids explore.

I Can See My House!

Evidently, a neighbor of mine purchased a new quadcopter and filmed our neighborhood this week. This video shows a pretty good view of the whole town where I live..

I think he’s planning to use it as part of his farming operation to inspect his crops. Recently, I spoke at the Arthur Capper Ag Cooperative CEO Roundtable in Kansas City on the impact of technology in our small towns and rural areas. Technology has really revolutionized our lives, and made the world much smaller for folks like us out in the hinterlands. Lots of people I know are running small businesses that rely on high speed internet access. One thing I touched on in my talk was the increasing importance of automation and robotics, including unmanned aerial vehicles. Little did I know that I would soon get a close up look at my property from the air in a YouTube video.

I suppose growing up and living in small towns, I’m pretty accustomed to everyone knowing everyone else’s business. But we are also accustomed to flying low under the radar and doing our own thing without a lot of interference from others. We don’t have neighborhood associations or overly zealous enforcement of laws and city ordinances. In some ways, our remoteness has afforded us some degree of privacy. If we conduct ourselves in a way that does not adversely affect others, mostly we get along just fine. But the world is shrinking, and these new technologies are affecting all of our lives, no matter where we live. What do you think about living a life in which every moment can possibly be captured on camera? It is the new reality.


Manual Dexterity of Millenials


A couple of weeks ago I made a presentation to a group of agricultural cooperative CEOs about the implications of technology in rural communities along with implications for future employees. I talked about a number of things that I usually discuss, including the use of social media and the Internet as tools for doing business in small towns and rural areas.

One idea I put out there was one I admitted that I had no research to back it up, but was simply an observation from my teaching over the past thirteen years. I mentioned that I felt my current students in general have lower manual dexterity skills than students did when I first began teaching. This comes from observing them working on things like constructing CAT5 network cables, or in one design class I teach, carving Jack-o-lanterns. (I am always amazed at how many students have never made a Halloween Jack-o-lantern.)

I watch them fumble with operating scissors, cutters, crimpers or any other hand tool. Even with things like hooking up a computer’s peripherals, setting up a camera & tripod, or studio lights, some students seem timid about using their hands to accomplish a given task. I have to wonder if so much screen time during childhood has affected their ability to do things in the physical world.

Like I said, I have no data to back up this observation, so I recently did a search of literature to see if anyone else sees it this way. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time looking into this, but I was only able to find one article that mentioned this phenomenon at all. It comes from the Oct 21, 2013 issue of Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News.

Joseph Kokinda, president and CEO, Professional HVAC/R Services Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio noted that millennials often lack the skills necessary to be successful in the HVAC industry, including cognitive thinking skills, manual dexterity, an understanding of science and math, an ability to be a leader and present a professional demeanor in the field, and the aptitude to communicate effectively with on-site customers.

From the same article… Carter Stanfield, program director, Air Conditioning Technology Department, Athens Technical College, Athens, Ga observed,

Fewer of these individuals spent their childhoods taking apart their bikes or playing with their dad’s tools. Most millennials don’t have a lot of kinesthetic mechanical experience that many people now in their 50s had.

To the agricultural CEOs I spoke with, this skill of manual dexterity is critical, and they told me as much. To me, this question of fading dexterity skills is fascinating, and could be a fun research project to explore at some point. I have to wonder if this is as true for kids in rural areas like where I live as it is for kids in the city.

I wonder if developing a “maker-space” or “hacker-space” might be a good antidote for this reluctance to get our hands dirty? I also wonder what others think about my suspicion that manual dexterity is becoming a lost art? Am I on to something here, or am I making more of this than I should?