Rescue the Robot School

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by Stephen Hammond

An event happened in our community on November 30. A group of people came together at an open house showcasing the efforts of OoRTech (Oxford on Rideau Tech) to teach robotics and coding to students from kindergarten to grade 6. Yeah, that’s right. Kids learning to run robots. In a small country community school that the school board wants to close.

So, you’re saying, what, is this just for fun? Kids playing with toy robots? Think again. The Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about Bill Gates (Microsoft guy) in his book, “Outliers”. The parents of the kids at Bill Gates’ grade school (specifically the Moms, using proceeds from a rummage sale) bought a computer terminal for the school that was linked to a GE mainframe, so the kids could learn coding. This was in 1968, when almost nobody, except the military and large corporations, owned computers.

Bill and some other students, including Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, took to coding with that computer. It was fun, despite the fact that it was clunky compared to today’s machines. To make a long story short, by the time Bill went to university, he knew as much about software and computers as his professors did. I don’t have to say anything more about what happened after he dropped out of Harvard.

And the point of this is not to say that we all have to be a billionaire like Bill Gates. What I am saying, is that it’s a great example of parents taking the initiative to add richness and opportunity to the educational experience of their children, with some outstanding positive results. This is what is happening at Oxford-on-Rideau Public School. And it’s more than just looking at computer screens and playing videogames. Robotics combines acting in the physical world with intelligence.

The robot they are using in OoRTech is the Sphero sprk+. It is a transparent sphere that shows the circuit board and mechanical hardware, and integrates a gyroscope, accelerometer, a microcontroller (small computer), and bluetooth radio control. It is sealed and can run in water. It also has inductive charging (charging with electromagnetic field coupling). The software can be run on any tablet or smartphone. They had a station at the open house where you could paint a picture with the robot. By the end of the evening, the picture looked like a pointilist Jackson Pollack painting.

Now, robots and computers may not be for everyone. On second thought, has anyone noticed the number of people who have iPhones? And where are those iPhones made? If we want to build a society of economic optimism that can deal with the challenges of foreign competition, declining productivity, and the decline of middle class jobs, we need these skills. The future is one of increasing automation and adaptation of robotic technology to all industries and services. There’s a lot of talk about robots replacing many occupations (even lawyers and doctors – politicians maybe?) resulting in more job loss. This has happened, and will continue to happen. But experience shows that technology can create more opportunities than it destroys. It’s how you adapt that makes the difference. In addition, coding and robots can be a lot of fun.

So, I have a question for the School Board and the public. Why on earth would you even consider squashing a nascent opportunity like the one currently happening at Oxford-on-Rideau Public School? Keep this school open and support this effort. Don’t just be bystanders and let this closure happen. Taxpayers have a right to openly and vigorously contest decisions made by school boards. Get your municipal council to deny funds to the School Board until a comprehensive and smart plan has been outlined for the continued future of this school and the OoRTech program. Let’s think about enhancing and developing this idea some more, so it can be brought to other schools. Oxford-on-Rideau School could be the school board’s tech incubator for a fun, optimistic, and confident future for all the students they are responsible for.

Yes, we have to pay attention to the numbers. But look at the effort put forth by Brent and Katie Lekx-Toniolo and the other members of OoRTech to make this program happen. The effort is privately funded, and it’s costing the school almost nothing financially.

To the trustees and the school board: Let’s have some vision for the possibilities, and lead with your heart on this one.

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