By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japanese Robots: Kids’ Summer School for Robotics & Engineering in Rural Japan
A dedicated organization with a few dedicated staff is bringing robotics and engineering education to a part of Japan that’s about as rural as the hyper-densely populated country gets. The NPO Hito Project’s robotics courses are prepping kids for the robotics revolution!
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Rural Japan & Robotics
Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, is the geologically active, ruggedly mountainous home to about 10% of the total population. With about 1.6 million residents, mid-western Kumamoto City is the island’s second-largest metropolitan area, but by Japanese standards it is considered quite small, even quaint; clean water, friendly people, but mostly countryside. If you’re familiar with the United States, think Oregon or Washington, i.e., one or two big cities in the northwest, then lots and lots of small towns elsewhere.
Per capita, Japan as a whole is the most active and prodigious hub of robotics research, development, production, and usage on the planet – by far. The bulk of that, however, is centered in and around the seething metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, so although even somewhat rural Kumamoto City does have a considerable tech-industry presence (Honda, OMRON, Tokyo Electron, etc.), it’s not exactly a hotbed of robotics activity.
But roboticists, engineers, and their creations don’t have to come from the big cities up north, and an enthusiastic non-profit organization is laying the groundwork to prove as much.
NPO Hito Project’s Robot Summer School
Some here argue that an unforeseen byproduct of Japan’s long-running economic success, fueled in no small part by robotic manufacturing and industrial automation, has been the atrophy of practical, everyday physical problem solving skills. In a strange irony, the machines that helped propel Japan into a modern economic powerhouse, it’s argued, have obviated the need for mechanical know-how among the nation’s youth. The NPO Hito Project wants to plug this gap and make sure that Japanese kids are not just playing with robot toys, but building them – and taking a practical understanding of the basic principles of robotics engineering into higher levels of education and eventually the workforce.
Robot Summer School (“robotto suh-muhh skuu-ru,” for those who appreciate Japanese pronunciation!) is currently held in three municipalities in the Kumamoto metro area. According to the Hito Project’s program coordinator, Mr. Maehara, on Saturday, June 1st, 24 students aged 9-12 began a 4-hour robotics, engineering, and programming session in coastal Uto City. Another 4-hour class was held the following Saturday. Next were the Kumamoto City classes, this time with 39 students aged 9-15. Again, 8 hours spread across two consecutive Saturdays. Last weekend saw the first class for 16 students aged 9-15 in very rural Kōshi City. Then, with the completion of Kōshi City’s second class this Saturday, the Robot Summer School is a wrap.
In conducting the standard theory-to-programming-to-hardware courses, the Hito Project provides each team of 2-3 students one of the tried, tested, and well-liked & reviewed Lego MINDSTORMS robotics kits. It’s an excellent strategy, really. Any kid who ends up at Robot Summer School is going to be hip to Legos, and the only real problem with Legos is when you’re building something awesome and you run out of Legos.
This year marks the 5th anniversary of Robot Summer School, its widest reach, and the highest enrollment yet – and it fills a definite need. Most grade schools and junior high schools, even here in robo-friendly Japan, don’t have the time, resources, expertise – and frankly, the vision – to teach these subjects. But in just one month, the Hito Project will have provided nearly 80 young minds 8 intensive hours of hands-on robotics, engineering, and programming training (jump to the Facebook page for some great photos of the kids at work).
Oh, and one more thing: it’s free.
Governmental organizations chip in, sponsors donate classroom space and funds for robotics kits, high school students participate and help out, and college students contribute their time as instructors and mentors. The model is really quite simple, and highly exportable. Take motivated and qualified teachers, a small investment in equipment, a little bit of marketing, and POW! The fundamentals of robotics, engineering, and programming – delivered to the brains of the youth.
Or the brains of 30- and 40-somethings. Because come on, who doesn’t want to learn how to build Lego robots?!
Skills for the Revolution
What will these kids do with the knowledge they’ve gained at the Hito Project’s Robot Summer School here in rural southern Japan? Who knows – perhaps they’ll design robotic farming equipment (southern Japan needs it – 50% of farmers are over 60 years old).
Realistically, most of the kids probably won’t end up in robotics-specific careers, but they will have gained not only a basic knowledge of robotics systems at the physical and software levels, but also invaluable problem-solving logic and an enhanced mechanical aptitude. Who among us, at any age, couldn’t use more of that?
The global resurgence of all things robotic has been likened to the rise of the personal computer or even the DotCom Revolution, but this time, we’re really paying attention – we see it coming, and we’re getting ready.
The Hito Project is all-in, and they’re taking action. How’s your community doing?
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Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.