Computer Science, Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Robotics, STEM, Uncategorized

Think Like a Child, Act Like an Innovator

HEIR lab girls

Young ladies programming humanoid robots in Dr. Williams’ Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab at Marquette University

Ever notice how kids can pretend to be, do, or make anything? What happens to the imagination we have as children when we grow up and become adults? Is it because we are faced with the harsh realities of life, with no time to dream or use our imagination. You need to start dreaming again. And if you have children, you need to protect and nurture their ability to confidently dream, imagine, and make things.

Growing up in a small army town, in a two bedroom trailer, I didn’t have a lot of money for toys. My Dad and Mom would always make sure I had clothes to wear, food to eat, and any school related things. My brothers, friends from the neighborhood, and I would go exploring across the nearby railroad tracks to a salvage, or junk yard. We would find used radios, TV sets, lawn mowers, and even a helicopter. We would begin to take things apart, break things, and try to understand how they work. (Note: years later, I sent that salvage yard a check with my apologies, so I could have a clear conscience). We would go to the public library to find books on how to make rockets, science experiments that we could perform in the kitchen, or science fiction stories. We loved watching Star Trek, Lost in Space, and the Jetsons. I liked the Robot on Lost in Space and Rosie the robot in the Jetsons. We would use anything we could find plus our imagination to make things out of wood, clay, blocks, bricks, or paper.

Kids today don’t have time to play. Hours and hours of homework. Schools seldom have recess. Kids tend to watch TV, YouTube videos, and play video games. One reason I don’t like video games is because it’s playing with someone else’s imagination. The developer of the video game got to use their imagination and then dump it out for kids to play with. Why not have the kids draw their own video games? And then learn how to program the video games themselves using a $35 Raspberry Pi computer using Python, or some other language (like the soon to arrive Swift for Linux).

My research is investigating how to build humanoid robots that can learn and interact with humans, especially kids, to help children exercise more and learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Three years ago I started to work with students to build our humanoid robot, MU-L8, or “emulate”, to continue my quest to invent humanoid robots that emulate human emotions, motions, intelligence, and behavior, in order to assist people in tasks they need help in. Today, MU-L8 can carry on a conversation with emotional responses, it’s played robot soccer autonomously in Brazil and China at RoboCup in the TeenSize Humanoid Soccer division, and we are working on developing the kinematic model to express physical gestures based on integrated, emotion filled dialogue with people. I’m also developing an artificial intelligence framework to enable humanoid robots to learn creative knowledge concepts using metaphor-guided pretense play with kids. My hypothesis is that AI-enabled robot may need to learn it’s creativity from playing with kids who have no limits on their imagination.

What does it take to create these types of humanoid robots? The kid-like dreaming of something new, child-like imagination, and integrating these ideas with the realities of building something out of real material using 3D printers, mini-PCs, arduinos, actuators, smartphones, apps, and cameras. To learn to innovate, children, and adults need these four things:

1. Vision
2. Expectations
3. Resources
4. Build

For kids to learn what a technology designer or engineer does, they need to see and hear one, or the very least read about one. Growing up, my Dad, a high school educated manufacturing worker and veteran, would buy Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. This fed my knowledge and curiosity about how God created people, animals, and things and how I then could create new things, often by synthesizing seemingly disparate areas. Kids need to be exposed to role models in engineering and science and it especially helps if they can identify with her or him culturally. When I learned about George Washington Carver, I made it my goal to somehow be something like him. A scientist who believed in God and that God would help him learn more about nature and creation to help others. I study, along with my students, human behavior, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology along with machine learning theory and techniques,and couple that with electronic hardware, software, and mechanical design. It’s connecting seemly disparate areas and seeing how they all relate.

When I was at Spelman, I gave the young ladies there the vision of doing things with robots through research, programming robots to dance, and playing robot soccer, a vision for how they could not only better themselves by preparing for computer science and engineering careers, but how they could also make a positive impact on society. I gave them reasonably high expectations and let them know that I believed in their ability to succeed. I coached them through failures with the motto, “Success is never final. Failure is seldom fatal, but it’s courage that counts” (W. Churchill).

We also have to provide the resources, including time, for kids to learn to learn, and to learn to create without fear of failure. There are lots of free software tools, online resources, as well as low cost computers and components that kids can use to make things and experiment. But don’t discount what kids can learn and design with paper, pencil, clay, bricks, or any kind of natural or raw material if given the space to do it. Free or low cost 3D design software is also available. If given the chance, I would buy a kid a used Apple laptop rather than buying a video game console, so that they can learn to program apps and games, and not just play them.

Let children build and make things. Let them know that making mistakes or failures is a natural part of the learning process. Writing programs will always result in “bugs” but the process of learning how to fix the bugs reinforces the programming knowledge. The process of building new things, a robotic sculpture, a Lego building, writing a Java, Python program, will give children the confidence they need to tackle other STEM subjects as long as they can connect the dots back to the playful fun they have given the right vision, expectations, resources, and opportunities to build and invent new things with their imagination. And remember the child in you, think like him or her, and begin dreaming and innovating again.

© 2015 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.

About the Author
Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics professor and author of “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”. Dr. Williams’ TEDx Talk, “Belonging in Technology: What I learned from Steve Jobs”, describes his journey from overcoming poverty to leading an all-women, African American RoboCup robot soccer team at Spelman College and being hired by Steve Jobs at Apple. You can follow Dr. Williams on Twitter @outofthebox1.


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