26 d’abr. 2015

Robotics, magic and education


Yesterday I gave a talk at the I Meeting on Science, Magic and Education, held in Girona and organized by the Càtedra de Cultura Científica i Comunicació Digital (Universitat de Girona) in collaboration with Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. The goal of this meeting is to discuss deeply how to best use magic to improve science awareness and science culture among citizens.

I'm not a magician, but sometimes the activities developed in my team (where we merge Science, Technology and Art) are perceived as magic by children, and this thought was the driver of my reflections.

Here I share the main ideas of my talk:

  • Given my experience in schools for underprivileged children, sometimes I have observed that children, especially if they have not been exposed to technology, perceive robots as magical beings. One can see an almost direct relationship with the idea behind the Clarke's Third Law (SciFi author): Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. When children see a machine doing something by itself, something that is usually done only by people, they perceive some magical component that immediately creates curiosity, engagement, and sympathy. They see themselves reflected on the robot because for small children magic still plays a main role in their lives.
  • Jorge Wagensberg says that the learning process is divided in three main steps: stimulus, conversation, and understanding (sometimes intuition). And he adds that contradictions and paradoxes are the best stimuli for children. My idea is, therefore, that magic, as a great source of contradictions, can be a very good stimulus, and therefore become a good starting point for learning. Since robotics (and technology) is also often perceived as something amazing and magical, full of contradictions, then we can also consider it, if well used, as a good starting point (stimulus) for cognition and learning.
  • Mixing Wagensberg's ideas with our work methodology at UdiGitalEdu (the creative thinking spiral), in this talk I proposed a cycle of four steps: be amazed, think, create and play.
  • I ended my presentation reflecting on the similarities between programming and magic, and between programmers and magicians: somehow, coders are magicians that use illusions to achieve effects. Many times, while teaching programming to children, I have seen that they want to show the final effect (the game, the story or animation) but they do not want to reveal their programming tricks, just as if they were magicians (just look at the three girls from Shanti Bhavan School in the picture below). But there is a difference, when children have already shown you the final effect, they are thrilled to teach and share their coding tricks, and that does not usually happen with magicians :)