An Engineer, Middle Schoolers and Screaming Robots:Transformative Learning Fun at the Library

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By Candice Bartholomew Brown


“Robots are dumb, but if you have an intelligent programmer, then robots can pretend to be smart.”~ Middle School Robotics Student in Summer Robotics Camp Program

Nataliya Nechyporenko is among CU scholars who are appreciating the local public library as an excellent venue to launch into learning with a diverse and dynamic community. 

As a member of Professor Alessandro Roncone’s Human Interaction and Robotics (HIRO) group, Nechyporenko researches hardware and software technologies to enhance the design of robots that work more naturally alongside humans.  She wants to see robots widely employed in professional, domestic, and medical settings working alongside human companions.

Nechyporenko’s vision to bridge the local community with innovative ongoing research at CU Boulder happened in the summer of 2021. Funding for educational equipment and an undergraduate student intern were granted by CU Boulder’s Office for Outreach and Engagement, and Nechyporenko found the Lafayette Public Library to be an ideal place to teach a free robotics camp for middle schoolers.

Educational outreach specialists in STEM  are noting how public libraries are flexible and relaxed spaces that foster learning in dynamic and rapidly evolving fields such as computer science, machine learning, robotics and engineering. Nechyporenko’s story is a reminder of how public libraries are excellent venues for engaged scholarship, where learning can become reciprocal as experts from the university meet with local youth in shared spaces. 

The way Nechyporenko approached the workshop was part of her learning process. 

“We started off initially thinking that this concept of doing a small lecture and then doing problems was going to work. And it worked for a certain period  of time, until we realized that there were better things,”  said Nechyporenko.

Ultimately, what transpired was both inquiry-based and highly emblematic of democratic principles.

Inquiry-based learning involves building knowledge through exploration, experience, guided learning and small-group discussion, where students learn by doing, rather than the memorization of facts. It dissolves the line demarcating teacher and learners.  

Nechyporenko and her students shared a sense of purpose as they interacted with robots. Together they observed, questioned, tested, discovered and collaborated on new ideas.   Their problem solving and learning was dovetailed with a spirit of fun spontaneity. 

“I don’t think I needed to plan for it [fun] to be honest,” remembered Nechyporenko. “As soon as you incorporate sounds and lights and movement and so know, the students just took it wherever they wanted  to take it! One of the challenges was you’d pick up a robot and have it display some expression of fear- like a fear-of-heights challenge. They could record their own voice into the robot and have it play when the accelerometer detected that it was being lifted really fast. And so, they recorded a scream. It just ended up being four screams and it loops and loops and loops and … and then we learned about loops! And they just played it over and over again!”

All involved directly benefited from democratically-engaged scholarship. Nechyporenko found that, even in fields like robotics, there’s room for creativity and social engagement to solve problems together.   

“It’s from the engagement, the creativity and interaction between the people trying to solve problems, that you really see the impact that you’re making and are reminded of why you went into this,” she said.