Technological literacy

Robots developed by a small company will be available to 60 thousand students this year

EDUARDO CESARAlfa Kit transformed into a battery-powered vehicle with light sensorsEDUARDO CESAR

Soon after a robot competition in 2004, in the city of Salvador, state of Bahia, during a workshop at the Brazilian Computer Society, professors Marcello Cláudio de Gouvêa Duarte and José Pacheco de Almeida Prado decided to build a company to produce robotic kits. The idea was to develop small robots that could be built simply and educationally in classrooms. Both professors teach at UNIP (Paulista University) in the city of Ribeirão Preto and at UniLins (Lins University Center), in the state of São Paulo, and go against the national feeling that second place always means first loser. They were leading the team that represented both universities and were placed second during the competition in Salvador, the Brazilian phase of the competition organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer (IEEE), an international institution headquartered in the USA and of the most important in the electroelectronic technology development field.

Duarte and Prado were able to set up the company and developed kits that are now available in several schools. In 2007, the kit was used by approximately 12 thousand students in the city of São Paulo, including public and private schools such as Santa Marcelina and Carnello Marques, and in cities such as São Carlos, Bauru, Lins, Sertãozinho, Ribeirão Preto, Limeira and Jundiaí, in addition to João Pessoa, capital of the state of Paraíba, and Londrina, in the state of Paraná. The aim is to reach 60 thousand students and 100 schools in 2008, and also to take the project to the states of Bahia and Santa Catarina. “The teachers are able to set the blackboard aside for a while; classes become more dynamic, without losing their content, and stimulate students’ curiosity. It is what we refer to as developing technological literacy,” explains Prado.

In late 2007, the Alfa Kit was chosen as one of the 20 Brazilian projects out of the 239 submitted, selected and certified by the Ministry of Education (MEC) in the Educational Technologies field – a type of “quality seal” in this area. All over the world, especially in the United States, Japan and Spain, the use of educational robots is increasing and gaining more space because of the decreasing size of electronic components. The first classroom robots appeared in the USA in the 1980’s, because of the experiments carried out by South African professor Seymour Paper, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT, who created the computer language called Logos in the late 1960s and wrote the book Mindstorms: children, computers and powerful ideas, released in 1980. His ideas also encouraged the creation of the robotic Lego Mindstorm kits, by the traditional Danish producer of the Lego building blocks. Lego sells the products worldwide, Brazil included. Its main competition in Brazil is Duarte’s and Gouveia’s company, PNCA Robótica e Eletrônica.

PNCA’s educational and business success began with Montezuma, the robot that ranked second, after a robot built by a team of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). The robots, programmed to be autonomous and built by several of the teams enrolled in the competition, should have been able to go up a 25 centimeter-wide white ramp, both curved and straight, and protected by black walls, which lead to the top of a 1.60 meter high quadrangular pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, the machines had to put a golf ball in a whole only 10cm in diameter. The task should have been completed in ten minutes at most. Montezuma was moved by optical sensors, the sonars, which emit ultrasound, and establish the position, enabling the route to be adjusted when it hit the walls, to make perfect curves and not fall from the pyramid. Montezuma resembled a train locomotive (without the chimney and lots of visible wires) and stood out among the other robots: in the first stage of the competition, it was the only one that finished the task. “It was very efficient, and it always managed to sink the ball into the hole,” recalls Prado. “However, it was not very fast and finished the task slower than the UFRN robot during the second phase,” Duarte recalls.

Aside from the symbolic significance of the achievement – there were seven teams from some of the most important universities in the country – both professors decided to enhance their professional lives and transformed the idea into a solid conviction: to take robotics into classrooms and make it available to teachers at different teaching levels. “The idea was to combine technology with a consistent pedagogic background and use the robots to teach children aged six and above in a fun way,” explains Prado. With this in mind, back in 2004, both established PNCA Robótica e Eletrônica. In the following year, the company Planejamento em Educação Tecnológica – PETe was established.

Both companies work together and fully in sync with each other, and are responsible for the production and sale of the Alfa Kit. The Alfa Kit offers a series of materials required to build a robot in several formats, with different forms, functions and sizes.

EDUARDO CESARThe Alfa Kit has a control module and building structures, aside from the wheels that help put together an autonomous robot with head, body and limbsEDUARDO CESAR

Both partners admit that combining academic careers and business activity was an uncertain choice. “It gave me goose bumps,” says Duarte. He holds a degree in Electric Engineering from the University of São Paulo (USP) and a master’s degree in Computer Science from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). Prado, however, did things the other way around – he holds a computer science degree from UFSCar and a PhD in Electric Engineering from USP. Both had been professors for over ten years, but knew very little about the production sector. “We invested our savings in an uncertain business,” recalls Duarte. Therefore, from their outset and until July 2007, both companies were incubated at Cinet Incubation Center for Technology Companies of the Parqtec, the High Technology Complex Foundation of São Carlos), sharing the following responsibilities: PNCA was responsible for the development of technology for the kits, while PETe would provide pedagogical support for the project. “It was a crucial period to contact people and to learn management, production and administration issues,” declares Duarte.

The initial project was developed in three schools, one in São Carlos, one in São José do Rio Pardo and one in Lins. This pilot showed that it was necessary to make a series of changes to the original idea. “We suggested projects that we thought would last four hours. But the students solved the problems in 45 minutes,” says Paulo. “This was our first lesson – never underestimate children. They learn very quickly; moreover, computers are part of their daily life,” he adds.

After some changes and at least two prior versions, the Alfa Kit is now composed of recyclable aluminum parts and boards, plastic wheels with rubber tires, axis, sheaves, pulleys, engines, batteries and light, temperature, sound, and color and distance sensors, among other elements. Moreover, there is a software program in Portuguese, especially made for children and youngsters, combining icons and text, which directs the movements and reactions of the robot. The kit offers each student an exercise workbook, in addition to a guidebook for the teacher.

The company’s idea with the kits is to suggest activities that are suitable for different teaching levels. During elementary school, the project begins with the discussion of the importance and use of robots. It is also necessary to further understand the image children have of robots. “Robots are always imagined as humanoids, largely due to the influence of movies. When the students see those strange parts, often without any defined form, they get worried,” says Prado. Once this first impression has been overcome, the work involves concepts of space, movement and laterality. In Geography and History classes, one can draw the Atlantic Ocean and the maps of Brazil and of Portugal on blue paper and reproduce the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil. Then one can calculate the cartography and the proportional distance, escape obstacles in the “ocean” such as storms and whirlwinds, as the robots function as ships.

In Biology, students from a school in Itajobi, state of São Paulo, used waste material such as blankets, pieces of plastic, paper and plastic bottles to transform the robots they had built into turtles. After hatching from their eggs, reptiles must escape predators and reach the sea for their first bath. The exercise led to a discussion of environmental preservation. In middle school, one can think of robots that help prospect for oil, others to collect recyclable material, and devices that reproduce the movements of the planets and meteors.

In the high school years, aside from more sophisticated challenges, the idea is to encourage an interest in research among students. As a result of contact with the robots and with issues related to artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, youngsters are given the opportunity to collect data, describe the studies step-by-step, write reports and assess positive and negative aspects. “We give them the problems. It is the students’ responsibility to discuss and find solutions for them. It is important to remember that all the tasks are interdisciplinary and in line with the PCN (National Syllabus Standard) of the Ministry of Education,” guarantees Duarte.

According to the educators and idealizers of the project, there have been no quantitative assessments on the school performance (impact on grades and pass rates, for instance) of the students and institutions that adopted the kit. However, the reports from teachers and headmasters indicate that students have improved their group work and have written more creative texts. “Robots help develop reasoning, team spirit and entrepreneurism,” confirms Paulo Luiz Soares Gonzaga, director of Information Technology and Communications at the Education and Culture Bureau in João Pessoa. He saw the kit at an education technology fair held in João Pessoa in 2006.

In early 2007, the robots were already part of the daily life of 4,500 students in the city in nine different schools (there are 90 public schools and 68 thousand students in the city). “We began with one unit in each of the largest schools in the city,” explains Gonzaga. At first it was necessary to overcome the resistance of some of the teachers and their dislike of new technology. In general, however, teachers were open to the kit. In the units in which the initial project was implemented, truancy decreased and there have been more enrollment requests in 2008. “These schools have something else to offer,” he celebrates. “The objective for this year is to increase our partnership agreements and make the robots available to 30 thousand students, or almost half of the public school network in João Pessoa,” he concludes.

The final cost of the project that integrates the robotic kits, (whose patent request was filed in 2005), the school material and teacher training is not very high – from R$ 90 to R$ 120 per student, per year, depending on the number of parts requested and the hours of support and guidance available to the teachers. This investment is paid by the schools themselves in the private school network; in the public sector, the process requires bidding. Once approved, the kit becomes part of the budget of the Education bureaus. “Once the math is done, the cost is about R$ 10 per month per student,” says Jaques Weltman, the administrative director of the companies.