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Robots In The Classroom

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Although the TAM performs fairly simple tasks in the classroom, its components are identical to those used in high-tech manufacturing. It has been constructed to capture the attention of its users, especially the young ones. Its parts are colorful: The robotic arm is orange, the milling machine bright blue. It looks complex: The joints, bolts, screws, and wires are in plain sight, so students can see exactly how the robotic arm works. And it makes noise: The pneumatic clamp on the miller makes a loud blast when it opens to receive the small metal piece and again when it closes on it, and motors in the miller let out organ-like chords as the machine carves.

Phil Shoemaker, a technical consultant at Hudson Valley Community College, manages the TAM and provides support and training to the teachers who use it. He says that its "whistles and bells'' help it compete "head to head with Nintendo.''

"It gives the students instant, hands-on satisfaction that gets their interest,'' he says. "Now that we have their interest, we can teach them that this is what technology is, not those dingy, dangerous 1940s machines in the back of the [industrial-arts] room.''

The TAM does seem to be giving Nintendo a run for its money, according to some of the teachers who have worked with it. Claire Eirmann, who used the TAM last year in her technology classes at Averill Park (N.Y.) Middle School, says her students "just couldn't wait to get their hands on it.''

"They saw it in the room one day and were just buzzing all over about it--TAM this and TAM that; so much so that when the next group to use it came in they were already excited,'' Eirmann says. "It was taken away for a science fair for a couple of weeks in the middle of our time with it, and my students kept begging for it to please come back.''

Steven Smith, who used the TAM in his 8th grade technology class at Gowana Junior High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., says his students weren't the only ones the TAM turned on to technology. "I hadn't been much of a computer person myself,'' Smith says. "But now I feel more comfortable fiddling around with them.''

Eirmann had a similar experience. "It sparked a real interest on my part,'' she says. "I didn't know I wanted to get into computer-assisted drafting and machinery. But when I saw this I said, 'Ooh, this looks like fun.' You tend to stay late hours after school because it's so interesting and you can just keep learning more and more as fast as you can absorb it.''

Other teachers in her school have expressed interest in linking the TAM to their disciplines.

Teacher and student excitement are exactly what the TAM's creators hoped for. Raymond Puffer, associate director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Automation and Robotics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Douglas Baldrey, the associate dean and chairman of the department of mechanical and industrial technology at Hudson Valley Community College, realized back in the summer of 1989 that few young people were becoming interested in manufacturing and engineering careers. They decided they needed something that would give students some hands-on experience and get them enthused. So, they designed the TAM.

Phil Shoemaker built the first one, which was pilot-tested at the eight Albany-area schools during the 1989-90 school year. Because it was such a hit with students and teachers, two more are being built for use in other area schools this fall, and six to 10 additional modules are expected to be ready by the end of the academic year.

Puffer hopes to expand the TAM program even further by attracting support from industry. He would like businesses to foot the cost of each module--$30,000 for construction and $10,000 a year for a local community college to manage the system, train teachers, and transport the module between schools. So far, he says, such big names as Eastman Kodak, IBM, Xerox, and Corning have expressed interest. Sponsorship by these companies would expand the TAM network to school districts throughout New York State and eventually, Puffer hopes, the entire country. He already has spoken with General Motors and Ford about sponsoring a TAM in Detroit's schools.

"Right now, if I look at a list of potential locations for TAMs, I could see building as many as 15 or 20 this year,'' says Puffer.

Building additional TAMs will not only make them available to more teachers and students, but will also allow the teachers who get a module to keep it longer. The biggest complaint from teachers who used the TAM last year was that the time they had with it was too short. Each teacher had access to the device for less than a month because it was shared among the eight schools and showcased at various educational conferences.

More TAMs would also mean that the device could be used in a broader range of academic disciplines. Puffer and his colleagues are putting together an interdis- ciplinary curriculum around the TAM. "Math teachers, physics teachers, social science teachers, and English teachers all can use this module,'' Puffer says. "There's no reason why technology terms can't be included in vocabulary words in an English class. In social science, the TAM can be the starting point for discussion on the rapidly changing pace of technology, and so forth.''

However the TAM is used in the future, its most enduring appeal is likely to be that it gets students excited about modern technology by making it real.

"This program brought the actual, sophisticated piece of equipment into the classroom,'' says Smith of Gowana Junior High. "The students had learned about robotics from a video. But this is the actual thing. How much better can you do in teaching than that?''

-Debra Ladestro

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