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27 November 2017

Rise of the Robot Makers

A new research project at King's investigates the relationship between robot building and engagement with engineering, technology, science and mathematics. Research participants are currently competing on the new series of Robot Wars on BBC Two.

Girls building a robot
Girls building a robot

3,2,1…Activate! Amid growing concern about the implications of automation and artificial intelligence these more benign machines continue to hold the public’s affections and interest via the hit BBC Two series ‘Robot Wars’.

Contestants on the show build homemade electro-mechanical machines which fight to destruction, or more likely, technical malfunction. Its recent revival has been hugely popular including a spin-off show in China called ‘King of Bots’.

One eye-catching story involves a team of students who belong to the Brentwood School STEM group. Over 15 months they have built six heavy weight robots in various configurations. Researchers from King’s College London are currently investigating the connections students make between their academic studies of science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning and robot building success.

“The technology and the engineering overlap. The technology starts off in the building of the robot and the sort of designing and the CAD and the model and the engineering takes the model from CAD and turns into the full metal working robot.”

“It brings a lot of the concepts we study to life. When we learn about gyroscopic effects and friction in physics and maths and different uses of materials and resistant materials that’s all conceptual, we don’t get to see very much of it but when we actually get to the robot we get to see where it is applied and where limits are applied,” said another student in year 12.

Dr Karen Skilling of the School of Education, Communication & Society at King’s, who is leading the research reports: “Early findings indicate that student involvement in robot building is shaping student thinking about further education and career pathways, with intentions to study engineering (design, aeronautical, civil), architecture, veterinary and biomedical sciences”.

For example, one year 12 student said “Ever since I was very young I always had this interest in technology and making new products but ever since robot wars I have developed it. I have more interest in my subjects and it has taught me new skills

The students are aware that many people see robot building as smashing each other to pieces, for example, “I think many people think of the end product – the robot, but we think of the stages along the way to build it” and they recognise the benefits “…bringing together all the things we have learnt at school” in this trans disciplinary project that brings design and engineering to the fore.

The research uses both interviews and observation of the students at the school workshop and at live competition events and is also focused on the importance of teamwork, situated learning and student identity as they become immersed in the broader robot community. As one female Year 11 students stated:

“None of us at school would be able to build one of those robots by themselves. I don’t think anyone could. I feel like you need other people. …. I think it’s really important to work as a team”

The research is at an early stage but the team continues to build and compete. See episode five of Robot Wars on BBC TWO, aired on Sunday 26th Nov, via the BBC iplayer and see the team compete in the final episode this Sunday 3rdDecember, 8pm, BBC Two.

The Centre For Research In Education In Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (CRESTEM) is a major centre of the study of STEM education, based at the School of Education, Communication & Society at King's College London.

In this story

Dr Karen Skilling

Visiting Lecturer in Mathematics Education