The future is Nao

Students explore robotics coding with real ‘live’ subject

Chris Rourke

Times Staff Writer

 

Like something out of a sci-fi movie, "Nao" is every bit as entertaining as R2D2 or C3PO.

The approximately 23-inch-tall robot can talk, track a red ball, play air guitar, pick himself up when he falls and, yes, even dance.

But aside from the tricks and his adorable robot voice, Nao — pronounced "now" — provides students accelerated learning in the field of robotics and coding. Gunnison Watershed RE1J School District purchased the $9,000 robot last year for technology teacher Gregg Smith's Robotics II class. Smith — who teaches STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math — has 10 students currently taking the class.

“Since the addition of the Nao robot to our STEAM program, I've seen an increase in student engagement,” Smith said. “Students are able to program it using a variety of methods and actively explore the robot’s capabilities.”

Nao is a programmable humanoid robot created by SoftBank Robotics. He has sensors on his head, hands and feet enabling him to detect his environment. He has four directional microphones and loudspeakers which allow him to listen for keywords and speak. And he has two cameras that allow him to see. Nao also can connect to the internet.

What makes Nao an educational experience is that students are able to program various actions for him through a "drag and drop" coding system from their laptops. An action is selected by students, and the package of corresponding codes is dragged to the work space on the laptop. Then students must link each code within the package together to produce the action. Students take turns logging in and out of Nao's system.

Many of the actions come with voice commands. Nao responds to the phrase, "Hey, Nao" and focuses his attention on the speaker. When his eyes turn blue, it indicates that Nao is listening. The student then gives Nao a command or asks him a question. His eyes turn green when he processes the command.

Freshman Martina Ritz discovered robotics by chance. She signed up for Robotics I as an elective and found she really enjoyed it. Working with Nao in Robotics II has had even more perks, she said. In fact, she may consider a career in robotics.

Ritz coded Nao to tell a robot joke and then had him follow the joke by saying it was "not funny." Then she coded him to tell another joke — one that leaned more toward dark humor, suggesting that one day robots would take over the world.

"A robot walks into a bar and asks the bartender, ‘Do you serve robots?’" Nao said. "The bartender says, ‘No.’ The robot replies, ‘You will one day.’"

Then Nao released a laugh similar to something found in the Michael Jackson song, "Thriller."

"I wanted him to have an evil laugh," Ritz said. "But my favorite thing he does is his little dance."

 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com.)

 

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