The future is amazing. Before you have time to look back, you fall into it, you live in it, without realizing it. Until quite recently, people only dreamed of a world surrounded by smart and helpful robots, and today children are already designing them.
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Elephant and mouse hybrid
I will start the story from afar – from the School of Julius Benois, which is located in St. Petersburg. In 1890, a famous architect leased the land and decided to build a livestock farm. This farm was unusual: cows were not slaughtered here, but the milk was famous for its quality and was even supplied to the imperial court. After the revolution, the building was an art school for a long time, and in the late 90s, a beautiful wooden building burned down completely. And only in 2004, the Benois dacha was restored according to archival drawings and photographs. An additional education center was opened here, which today operates in 22 areas. Its main task is to prepare children from five to seven years old for school.
Adults and children know their favorite school by funny characters on the facade of the house – elephant mice, mice and elephant hybrids, invented by artist Nikolai Kopeikin. It seems to be with round ears, but also with a trunk. Perhaps this is a symbol of the theory of inventive problems, or TRIZ for short, a cross-cutting idea of an educational approach that differs from those accepted in ordinary kindergartens. Connect the unconnected, let the result be an incident, but unique.
“We do not give the child a ready-made solution, but offer to assemble it, put it together like a puzzle,” says Svetlana Rakhmanina, director of the Benois School. – We have our own programs, our own applications for iPads, which are used by pupils who develop computer games invented by our methodologists. There are foreign languages, chess, a ballet studio, a ceramics workshop. There was also a robotics studio, where kids studied under the guidance of teachers from the Polytechnic University. She suited everyone just fine. But then ROBBO burst into our lives, and classes began to be held in a slightly different format, with the participation of other teachers.
As in any old building, the Benois School has its own secret magic room, it flaunts the inscription “ROBBOclub”. This is the most common laboratory of miracles. Here, thought boils and melts, under the influence of which lifeless details acquire an iron soul and an electronic brain, learn to move in space, obey commands, and perform complex manipulations. And their creators, armed with a computer mouse, climb the stairs of education in order to someday overtake the sensational Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. When Svetlana Rakhmanina met Pavel Frolov, the founder of the sovereign educational robotics platform ROBBO, at the governor’s reception, she realized that he was thinking along the same lines of TRIZ as her school. So they became partners.
According to Pavel Frolov, the social mission of ROBBO is to prepare children for life in the world of the future, where robots make coffee for everyone and bring them to bed. It sounds tempting, but, as they say in detective stories, “I have bad news for you.” It will be easy to find a job in this beautiful world only for roboticists, IT specialists and artificial intelligence specialists. Therefore, if parents want their child not to be left behind, then it is better to send him today to the ROBBO club, to a robotics circle or to a school where there is a ROBBO class. Well, if none of this is nearby, then open a circle or class yourself. It would be good if there was at least one such section for every 50,000 people.
Pavel Frolov is somewhat categorical, but judge for yourself: in recent years, the digital information flow has literally flooded all spheres of human life. Trying to escape from him is as ridiculous as hiding in a cave from a pyroplastic flow during the eruption of Vesuvius. Everyone, regardless of age and education, has to master programs and applications, because without them you will not understand this new reality. The division into pure water of humanities and techies today has become very dotted, and soon the line between these concepts will be completely erased. And there will be no “clean water” …
From Spider Robot to Postman Robot
… In the computer class, five-year-olds are concentrating on some complex scheme. This is creative programming in RobboJunior, a programming language invented here. At the first stage of training, they master the three-dimensional world with the help of a 3D pen, get acquainted with a 3D printer, learn how to make simple structures and mechanisms, while developing visual, auditory and semantic memory, logical, creative and spatial thinking, fine motor skills.
After kindergarten, they will move on to the next four-year stage – this is already basic robotics, project activities. Children aged 8-10 are working with a special constructor for teaching robotics, learning 3D modeling, and teenagers aged 11-14 are already engaged in independent projects and assemble mechanisms. 3D printing is the shortest way to train a child to materialize any idea. As a result of training, he himself must decide how the robot will look like, design it, manufacture a printed circuit board, solder it, print the mechanical parts of the case, program it and implement it into a real process.
Examples? Please. At the end of the year, ROBBO holds its own festival – a bright parade of inventions by pupils of 70 ROBBO clubs and 300 school ROBBO classes from 40 regions of Russia. Perhaps someday on the path of a pedestrian, a MedBot robot similar to Moidodyr, invented by Stepan Matveev from Pskov, will suddenly appear and force them to treat their hands with an antiseptic, and also measure the temperature. Mikhail Slepchenko’s robot postman from Kerch will come to remote settlements of permafrost and deliver correspondence much faster than regular mail. And visually impaired people will be grateful to the invention of Yaroslav Kotegov from Votkinsk – a stylish hand guide bracelet that signals a road obstacle. And who wouldn’t be impressed by the funny bright blue robo-spider affably waving its paw “in the pose of a joyful dog” – the creation of 11-year-old Kerch inventor Anton Korolenko!
Freedom of technology against the “black box”
“We are developing and implementing an open sovereign platform for educational robotics that solves the problems of digital and engineering sovereignty at the international level,” says Pavel Frolov. – That is, we are not only shaping the thinking of innovative engineers, but also reducing Russia’s dependence on software from foreign suppliers. We help the children up the stairs, where first we play with them in technologies, on the next step we study how they work, and then we invite them to make copies of our technologies and invent their own. If at the age of five a kid comes to us to study, then at 12 he can already create his own startup, and by the age of 18 he can earn money in the technology business.
What is the uniqueness of Frolov’s educational system? After all, many people are engaged in robotics with children today. However, training often takes place on closed technologies, teachers teach children to press buttons in ready-made programs and combine ready-made blocks. Producers of educational robotics are often guided by the support of large technology corporations that are not interested in teaching children and youth in a quality way – to produce competitors. It is important for them to grow consumers of their products. As a result, such a specialist can only work on foreign equipment, service conveyors or repair imported robots by replacing a broken block with a workable one. And the specialists of the ROBBO platform themselves develop a set for engineering creativity and programming – training software and equipment, which is produced at the enterprises of St. Petersburg.
– Due to the fact that we use open platforms and licenses for software and hardware, we give students four freedoms, Pavel continues. – The first is the freedom to use the product for any purpose, the second is to study how it works, the third is to make a copy of yourself and share with a friend, the fourth is the freedom to improve the product and put it in the public domain to move forward progress. These are innovations that not only provide serious opportunities for children, but also take away from black box learning, where technology is taught as something magical. We explain to students that any magic is a misunderstood technology.
Although the ROBBO learning platform is still very young, there are guys participating in the Umnik program of the Innovation Promotion Foundation who are able to apply for a grant to launch their digital idea. There are only a few of them, because so far the average age of a participant in the ROBBO program is 9-10 years. But there have already been cases when children won competitions, where the prize is admission to the institute. While such a prize is not given to them – it is not allowed, they are still small. And it’s not fair. If a man has designed an automatic drinker for cows and his invention is already being implemented on one of the farms, what difference does it make how old he is?
Hockey box principle
ROBBO actively participates in programs to support Russian development institutions, receives assistance from the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, the Innovation Promotion Fund, the Information Technology Development Fund, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Skolkovo Foundation, and a grant from the government of St. Petersburg. Last year, the platform won an open competition of the fund for regional social programs “Our Future” – received an interest-free loan to launch five robotics clubs in St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that ROBBO is a rapidly growing social business project, every penny for support is very important.
This summer, the project was presented at the highest level – at the competition “Strong Ideas for the New Times”. The application just proposed a model of an open sovereign educational platform for robotics to eliminate dependence on foreign equipment. It was selected among 19,000 applications, entered the top ten, and on July 20, at the final meeting of the forum, it was presented to President Vladimir Putin. He approved the platform and instructed the government to help ROBBO resolve issues with the production of technology, implementation in schools and export to other countries. A dialogue is already underway with the relevant ministries.
“I told the president that the training of a robotics engineer echoes the training of hockey players in the USSR,” says Pavel Frolov. – Remember, then in every yard there was a hockey rink. All the boys chased the puck on the ice, and those who did well went to the district team, then to the city team, then to the school of the Olympic reserve. The ROBBO class in every school is just that same hockey rink. And the ROBBOclub is already a regional story, where you can prepare for the Olympiads, enter universities and form a team for business. Since the president, fortunately, is a hockey player himself, he understood me.
Pavel believes that today the level of support for startups in Russia is unprecedentedly high. And the quality of inventions and innovations here is quite at the international level. Only public opinion lags behind. For some reason, it has long been believed that our technologies are almost made of straw. In fact, the only thing our children need besides a good education is the right ambition and confidence in themselves and their knowledge. Then the guys will easily enter the “brave new world” and create a new class of specialists. All monotonous and boring work will be taken over by machines, leaving people with only creativity and creation.
Lyudmila POLONSKY, St. Petersburg, photo by the author