Is It A Robot?

By Mark Greenlaw

This is the first piece in a multi-part series in which we plan to address topics related to preparing students to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Robotics is an important technology mentioned often in any discussion on the future of work and the skills students will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

When people hear the word “robot”, many conjure images of the humanoid machines in movies like Star Wars or in SciFi thrillers. Or, they may think of the massive industrial robotic arms seen in commercials showing the automated assembly lines of the major automobile companies. Or perhaps some have witnessed the amazing robots from Boston Dynamics, featured in a recent video showing off their dance moves.

Image source: IEEE Spectrum

But, exactly what is a robot? And why is robotics such a key subject area to expose to students in our K-12 schools?

What is a robot?

Prior to joining EXPLO Elevate, I spent about 8 years working in STEM education, in the corporate world as well as in non-profit educational settings, this coming after a 30-year career in the STEM field of Information Technology. Most recently, I was part of the leadership team of FIRST robotics, the non-profit that runs the world’s largest K-12 robotics competition, founded by the inventor Dean Kamen over 30 years ago. We had a little game we’d play, looking at various devices in the world, asking, “is it a robot?”

A simple definition of a robot is that it is a machine that exhibits sensing, cognition, and actuation. A robot typically has some form of sensor that may sense light, temperature, moisture, or proximity. A robot is then able to read the sensor information and make decisions – cognition – which requires a computer or microprocessor that has been programmed accordingly. And finally, it has actuation, the ability to put something in motion, such as turning on a motor to drive a vehicle, move a steering mechanism, or grab and lift an object. If a machine you observe displays these three traits, sensing, cognition, and actuation, it’s likely a robot.

Why is robotics important in K-12 Education?

Robotics is an important subject area in K-12 education for two primary reasons. The first is obvious: robotics helps students learn specific technical skills that can be beneficial in future careers, such as physics and the physical properties of materials, electricity and topics related to electrical engineering, and coding, since robotics requires programming. These are many of the skills that the workforce demands now, and will demand more in the future. According to a 2018 Pew Research report, “since 1990, STEM employment has grown 79% (9.7 million to 17.3 million) and computer jobs have seen a whopping 338% increase over the same period.”

And robotics is typically taught using a very hands-on, project-based learning approach, which tends to increase engagement and interest in STEM. Research shows that interest, and not grades or proficiency, in the STEM fields is a better indicator of whether students will pursue STEM careers ¹. Organizations such as FIRST robotics have evidence, through multi-year longitudinal studies, that students engaged in their programs are 2-3 times more likely to pursue STEM college and careers. The results were even more pronounced for girls: compared to their peers, FIRST female alumni are 3.7 and 5.3 times more likely to take college coursework in engineering and computer science, respectively.

A second major benefit of robotics education is that it can help develop many 21st century and non-cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, creative problem solving, perseverance, collaboration.

In their book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner discuss the importance of finding real-world phenomena to engage students:

“The opportunity for our education system is to use content, concepts and real world phenomena to help our kids develop critical skills and inspire them to pursue challenging career paths … these [successful] approaches share core pedagogical principles:

      • Students attack meaningful, engaging challenges
      • Have open access to resources
      • Struggle, often for days, and learn how to recover from failure
      • Form their own points of view
      • Engage in frequent debate
      • Learn to ask good questions
      • Collaborate
      • Display accomplishments publicly
      • Work hard because they are intrinsically motivated.”

The process of designing, building and programming a robot, particularly when done by students collaboratively in teams, requires they exercise all the pedagogical principles that Ted and Tony describe in their book.

Robotics allows students to tackle meaningful and engaging challenges; they often struggle with the design and implementation of their robots. Teams engage in debate, ask questions, and form points of view as they collaborate on their projects, and when allowed, particularly when involved in robotic competitions or exhibitions, can display their accomplishments publicly. And, I’ve personally witnessed how hard they will work, not for a grade, but because they are intrinsically motivated to make their robot perform.

Robotics programs also develop the types of skills that are increasingly needed as we continue to move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as analytic thinking, technology design and programming, critical thinking and analysis, and complex problem solving. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 identifies these skills and others as trending as we approach and move past 2022.

Offering robotics education can provide significant benefits to students.

Challenges in engaging students around robotics

Despite these benefits, there are also many challenges in offering robotics education in schools. One of the most significant ones is attracting students to these programs, particularly when they are electives or extra-curricular. This problem is most pronounced in those populations typically underrepresented in the STEM fields, namely girls, students of color, and those from low-income families.

Many popular robotics programs use a 4-wheeled robot. These robots tend to look an awful lot like radio-controlled (RC) cars, which historically have been toys that many young boys enjoy. Additionally, research shows that women place a high value on communal goals (working with or helping others) and tend to be more interested in working on problems that help others ². So building a robot to navigate an obstacle course or chase a ball may not attract them.

Second, building a robot to play a game or complete an obstacle course may seem meaningless and unimportant to students facing significant challenges in their home or school environment. If a student has deep concerns about their personal safety, the quality of the water they drink, or the availability of food, then tinkering with robots may be less prioritized.

There are logical solutions to address both challenges. Why not have students develop a hydroponic system to help solve the problem of urban food deserts? This is a challenge that can solve a real-world problem facing many people. But is it (a hydroponic system) a robot? Yes, most definitely. Hydroponic systems have sensors for heat, light, and moisture. They include a microcontroller that must be programmed to read these sensors, and then take action, such as moving (actuating) a motor to turn on a water valve, switch on a light, or lift a cover to expose sunlight. It’s a robot – it just doesn’t look like one.

The key point here is that educators can look for robotic challenges that tackle real-world problems. And solving real-world problems using robotics in the classroom, or in extra-curricular programs, is an example of “playing the whole game at a junior level” as described by learning scientist David Perkins, and discussed in detail in the book In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine. Students can do the same things that professional scientists and engineers do in academic and corporate settings, just at a level that matches their abilities.

A robot by any other name

There are countless robotic systems that help improve people’s lives, and fall in a category of non-conventional robotic systems. Another example is a system that takes city-wide water or air samples, and uploads the data to a cloud-based database for analysis and action by city planners. Many medical devices rely on robotics, specifically the field of prosthetics. The Luke bionic arm, designed by Dean Kamen, is an example of this. Agriculture drones, which are essentially flying robots, can help farmers monitor the health of crops. Self-driving cars are one of the most complex examples of a robot. They have hundreds of sensors and cameras and rely on extremely complex software to control and drive the car. The self-driving car, if it meets its promise, will result in saving tens of thousands of lives every year.

A final example of a non-traditional robot is one that is very personal to me, used a few times a week in the winter months: my indoor bike trainer and the platform called Zwift. Zwift is an internet based software platform that allows you to ride your bike on an indoor trainer, and shows you riding as an avatar virtually alongside other cyclists in a number of courses, including New York Central Park, London, Paris, and Innsbruck.

Image source:

Zwift allows you to connect, via Bluetooth, to various sensors on you, your bike or indoor trainer, including wheel speed, pedal rate (known as cadence), and heart rate. This data is read by Zwift to put your avatar in motion on your computer screen, creating an immersive experience of you riding down the road alongside other riders. You can even ride with people you know: I’ve ridden with my son who lives in Colorado, and a college buddy who lives in Indianapolis. And, to take it one step further and complete the definition of a robot I outlined earlier, Zwift can communicate back to “smart” indoor trainers, directing the trainer to increase wheel resistance when you encounter a hill in the virtual world. Zwift is also “gamified” in that it alerts you when you set a new PR (personal record), as well as lets you earn points that allow you to customize your avatar or bike.

Riding the Zwift London course with my son, Dana, who lives in Colorado.

This bike example meets our definition of a robot – not as a single device, but as an integrated system enabled by the internet and multiple technologies. This is also an illustration of another Fourth Industrial Revolution technology called the Internet of Things (IoT), which we will cover in a subsequent piece. This really incredible application of technology helps me maintain my health by making it enjoyable to ride my bike indoors during inclement weather, something I used to despise prior to having such technology.

I share these stories of unconventional robots to spark ideas on how you might get your students more interested in the subject area. But these examples also may trigger ideas for how you might introduce robotics and related concepts in other subject areas. It’s very easy to use robotics in math class to teach geometry or in science class to teach physics. But the social benefits – and risks – of robotics can be an interesting topic to explore in social studies or english classes.

Robotics can also be used in art classes. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell designed a program called Artbotics, where high school students created animatronic art installations that woke up, spoke to you, or moved when you came close. I taught an e-textiles afterschool program with sixth graders in the Boston public schools, in which students used conductive thread to sew a Lilypad Arduino microcontroller and LED lights into a piece of clothing or banner to make a cool piece of fashion that the students could take home and show their friends and family. (Technically, not a robot since we did not incorporate sensors – but we could have.)

Example of eTextile project done with 6th graders using Lilypad Arduino


Robotics has become an essential skill for a well prepared person to move with grace into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Given the increasing ubiquity of robotics, helping students develop an understanding of what constitutes a robot, how they work, and how to build them is a critical skill set that, unless developed, will leave a young person without what will soon be a basic skill.  Robotics can’t remain solely in after school programs, accessible only to those students with the interest, time, economic means, and family support to take advantage of them. Sharing with students the many forms that robots take will likely lead to more authentic engagement, and — who knows — even inspire them to find their own Zwift equivalent. 


1. Tai, R.H., Lui, C., Maltese, A., Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312 (May), 1143-1144.
2. Diekman, A. B., Clark, E. K., Johnston, A. M., Brown, E. R., & Steinberg, M. (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to stem careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 902–918.