Children and robots: Ritika, graduate student in electrical engineering, once wanted to be a kindergarten teacher because she has a passion for helping children learn. Although she now has her sights set on being a university professor, she still gets to feel like she’s teaching a child by teaching a robot how to write in the Developmental Robotics Laboratory. Ritika works with lab director Alexander Stoytchev, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. The lab is currently researching the developmental process of robots to determine how they can learn what children learn over the first two years of their lives.
Research challenges: Ritika’s experience—while rewarding, enjoyable, and applicable to some of the classes she is currently taking—has shown her that there are many challenges to overcome when conducting research and that careful planning is necessary. Sometimes those challenges include assumptions. Throughout this project, Ritika has been reminded that writing, something that is so easy for adult humans, is a complex task that takes multiple years for a child to learn, not to mention a robot.
Other challenges are more technical. One of the first for Ritika was to determine what writing instruments the robot could use. She found that she has to use an oversized pencil because the robot has larger fingers than humans that can’t grasp a normal pencil.
Teaching robots to write: She also has to analyze how the arm moves when writing. While humans don’t think about what joints to move or where the arm must be positioned, Ritika has to think about these details so that the robot’s joints and arms are coordinated and programmed to move at the appropriate time and to the appropriate place.
Using the oversized pencil and Ritika’s programming, the robot is currently learning how to make marks on different surfaces. Once this task is mastered, it will move on to making circles, semicircles, and lines. Once the robot can make those shapes, it will then learn the alphabet, which is a combination of circles, curves, and lines.
Advice to students: Ritika, who started working in the lab in fall 2008 as an undergraduate student, encourages other students who are interested in having a research experience to talk to professors about their research, participate in clubs, and take advantage of resources available on campus.