A custom-made robot is exciting Auckland school children about science.

The government is keen to encourage young New Zealanders to keep studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). There are many well paid secure career options in STEM areas, and it is predicted that almost all future jobs will require some STEM knowledge. It is especially challenging to promote STEM in primary schools where teachers tend not to have specialist science backgrounds and qualifications.

Senior Lecturer Dr Farhad Mehdipour, at Otago Polytechnic's Auckland International Campus, is leading a research project which is taking a novel approach to encourage primary school children to study STEM subjects. The team designed and produced a robot, using off-the-shelf components (eg Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards, gear boxes) with a bespoke casing laser cut from acrylic. Importantly, the outside of the robot is transparent so that school children can see inside it. The robot is enabled by artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies. 

As a classroom tool it interacts with the children, answering questions, navigating a maze with their help, and telling a STEM story.  The prototype robot has been tested already in a few schools in Auckland, where it generated lots of excitement. It has also been displayed at MOTAT for the Science Street Fair in 2017 and the SuperSTEM exhibition in 2018. 

Farhad's team currently includes Nilufar Baghaei, also of Otago Polytechnic, and colleagues from the University of Auckland, Unitec, RedZone Robotics and STEM Fern. The next stage of the project aims to help a group of learners and their school teachers to build a robot which helps children make healthy lifestyle choices. The robot would teach and remind kids about good nutrition choices, such as eating more fruit and vegetables. It will help them find activities for exercise and fitness, and establish good sleep practices.

January 2020