CEO Of Educational Robot Company: “Robots Belong In The Classroom”


Graham Ryland believes that robots belong in the classroom. As the CEO of Barobo, the maker of modular robots called Mobots, he has witnessed firsthand the enthusiasm students get for math and science when they can learn the subjects in the context of robots. He gave a recent talk at TEDxSacramento to share his enthusiasm for what robots can do for education.

“Robots offer a wide variety of learning modalities. Kids can learn math through experience. They can make predictions with math and then verify them with robots.” He added, “Robots teach 21st century skills like creativity and collaboration. They give the opportunity for students to have mentorship positions with other students.”

As Graham explains in the TEDx video, the company has a successful approach for getting kids into learning about math via robots: a tiered-strategy called instructional scaffolding. “We grab kids with the remote control. We show them what robots can do. We use control panels to get them interested in using math as part of their curriculum and part of their word problems. We use pose teaching to have hands-on programming that allows them to create complex motion control with the robots. And then, once they know how to program in C, opportunities are limitless.”

Does it work to get kids into programming too? Graham said, “Students can start programming with their hands instead of with a cold, hard keyboard. They can then download the software to their computers for editing. Very quickly, they are able to create complex software.”

Check out Graham’s TEDx talk highlighting how robots can transform the classroom experience for students:

While studying engineering as a graduate student at UC Davis under Dr. Harry Cheng, Graham worked with his advisor to develop the patented technology behind the Mobot. Together, they started Barobo in 2011 with a $150,000 NSF grant intending on making robots available to expedite university research; unfortunately, with onboard computers, the aluminum-based bots cost $2,000 a piece, leaving Barobo with few clients. So the company shifted its focus to high schools and redesigned the bot, making it Bluetooth-enabled so it could be run from a computer and using plastic instead of aluminum to lower the cost to $270. In 2012, the company received another $500,000 in funding from the NSF with the potential for matching funds if the company can transition the robot into a commercial product.

The company has been working with California middle and high school students to use Mobots in the classroom, including programming the bots and designing components for them that they can then make through 3D printing.

Though it had only made a few hundred Mobots during most of last year, the company received a large order for 550 bots in November. Before, the manufacture of a Mobot took 20 hours with some of the components being made with a 3D printer, but with the large order, the company is contracting to get the parts produced via injecting molding.

Using robots in education has been a dream of many STEM educators for years. But getting easily accessible and reasonably priced robots, a structured pedagogy for using them in various curricula, and an advocate who would champion their use has been long overdue. Graham Ryland and his Mobots look like a real contender for this vitally need asset.

To learn more about Mobots, watch this two videos that show off the bot’s cool features:

David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.

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