Robotics Night sparks play, wonder at MHS

USC Interaction Lab student Zhonghao Zhu smiles as he introduces Kiwi the game and activity robot to MHS students. Photo by Skye Hannah

Friendly and artistic robots were the stars of the show May 28 at the 17th annual Robotics Night at Monterey Hills Elementary (MHS). The evening served as an opportunity for both students and their families to get up close and personal with hands-on robots, interacting with them in reading and painting exercises.

Led by MHS parent Maja Mataric’, a professor of computer science and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, founding director of the USC Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center, co-director of the USC Robotics Research Lab and vice dean for research in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the evening included four student volunteers from her Interaction Lab at USC who answered questions and gave students the ability to play and interact with four robots. The robots are designed to socially assist people of all ages, from youth with different learning abilities to elders with more sedentary lifestyles. Mataric’ was hopeful that the interaction experience would give students a clearer idea of what pursuing robotics could look like.

“Kids don’t understand why it’s an amazing thing to go into and also it’s not presented in a way that attracts all students across the board,” Mataric’ told The Review. “For example, girls don’t understand that it would be cool. The fact that we have robotics here, all of which are built to help human health, is often very motivating for girls.”

MHS student Emma Shen (from left), parent Jennifer Zhu and students Angela Zhao and Alison Chan talk with USC Interaction Lab student Lauren Klein about the storytelling robot Mabu.

One yellow robot named Mabu looked around with moving eyes and held a touch screen to serve as an engaging reading partner. Sphero, a light-up tennis-ball sized robot, rolled around a maze while controlled by students using a phone app. With green feather-like soft edges, Kiwi the robot encouraged students to move, dance and play games. Shaped like a large bowling pin, Kuri the robot reacted to touch and used a camera and 2D laser to navigate and share its vision with students.

“These are the kinds of things that many, many kids would not think of when they think of engineering and hopefully when they see them here, they can get motivated because they can relate to these things and then they would hopefully be more inspired,” Mataric’ said. “That’s my goal.”

Interaction Lab student Lauren Klein introduced students and families to Mabu as stories from Star Wars and Harry Potter scrolled across the touch screen. The robot vocally read the story as the words came across the screen while occasionally looking up, mimicking the patterns of a person reading a story. Klein said a social presence can be a huge advantage over a simple digital screen.

“People find that having an embodiment, like a physical robot, is a lot more engaging for kids and for older individuals than just having a computer program helping you learn to read,” said Klein.

MHS student Matthew Lau (center left) uses a phone app to control Sphero the robot through a painting maze with USC Interaction Lab student Chris Birmingham alongside MHS student Matthew Li.

MHS fourth-grader Alison Chan smiled as she looked at Mabu and said it was a different experience than reading on her own.

“Tablets and phones don’t have eyes,” remarked Alison. “I think when you’re lonely, it can be company.”

Kuri shared the auditorium stage with Interaction Lab student Tom Groechel, who showed the students how an augmented reality headset could be worn to sync with the camera in the robot’s eye. On a projection screen, colorful blocks appeared that Groechel could reach out to and “touch” using the overlaid digital imaging, similar to the popular phone and tablet app game Pokemon GO. He shared that the play aspect of interacting with robots serves as a way to encourage students and persevere.

“Basically the idea is to try and increase curiosity in students as opposed to when they see failure, instantly getting dejected,” said Groechel. “Instead of them going ‘oh, that’s how that works.’”

Andrea Whyte-Reilly watched as her kindergarten son Luke Reilly piloted Sphero around the maze, drawing patterns on paper with paint spread throughout it. Luke proudly held up a painting he made with the “painting robot” and said he enjoyed playing with it since “it could roll, it had an app to control it and it didn’t control itself.”

USC Interaction Lab student Tom Groechel (right) introduces Kuri the robot to MHS students Zachary Lagarce (from left), Yuan Ling, Alexandra Wang and Matthew Li at the MHS Robotics Night, May 28. Photos by Skye Hannah

An artist herself, Whyte-Reilly brought Luke to Robotics Night to learn more about different types of robots. She said her son was an avid follower of BattleBots after learning about them on the show MythBusters and one day wanted to build his own.

“When he gets his YouTube time, that’s what he watches so that’s what he wants to do,” said Whyte-Reilly. “Either that or be a singer.”

Reflecting on the evening, Mataric’ hopes that the experience resonates with students and their families.

“It’s been a great synergy here,” said Mataric’. “With Dr. Laurie Narro, the principal now, she’s been so supportive and so we just do it every year because the parents like it, the kids like it and I think it’s good for my students. It’s good for them to engage with the kids because a lot of them want to go on and teach and do research and develop technology for kids and for everybody. It’s just so satisfying.”