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WPI, DEKA Launch New Robotic Platform for STEM Education


October 13, 2022

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and DEKA Research and Development Corp. have launched a new robotic platform aimed to be a game-changer for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education pipeline. The Experiential Robotics Platform (XRP) includes robots that are simple, inexpensive, easy to build and just as programmable as a more expensive robot.

The new robotic platform, still in beta form, comes with built-in educational and software support, and are designed to operate autonomously, perform basic tasks, navigate on their own, sense distance, and manipulate its environment. Easy tool-free assembly lets users build quickly, with parts that can be replaced easily through the use of a 3D printer. WPI said that when they come to market next year, the robots will measure 7-inches by 5-inches and weigh less than 1 lb. – about the size of a box of chocolates. The cost is expected to be less than $50, the group said.

“Robotics has proven to be extremely effective in stimulating interest in broad areas of science and technology across the entire range of student levels from kindergarten through college, but having access to affordable tools and sustainable support systems is often a barrier,” said Winston “Wole” Soboyejo, interim president of WPI. “The XRP was designed and created with that in mind, so more young people from around the world can partake in the exciting activity of building and programming robots. Our world urgently needs more STEM professionals and business leaders with differing experience(s), expertise, questions, and passions to labs and boardroom tables – only then will we be able to create, translate, and deploy new scientific insights and technologies that work for everyone.”

WPI and DEKA provided a free XRP to each of the 185 teams at this year’s FIRST Global Challenge, and are being asked to share the kits with other schools or organizations interested in implementing or expanding robotics programs. Educators and students will also get access to free online courses, created and supported by WPI, on how to build, program and control the robot, which they can scale up using the same hardware with free software updates.

“We are at a critical time across the world when many of our most pressing problems, such as climate change, can be and need to be addressed by science and technology,” said Dean Kamen, a WPI alumnus and founder of FIRST Global and DEKA, which has been partnering with WPI to engage and inspire young STEM enthusiasts for more than 30 years. “The demand for this kind of talent is intense and having a global STEM workforce prepared for the future isn’t just a societal need, it’s good business. It’s also essential for every aspect of life on this planet that we continue to empower and encourage kids by joyfully engaging them in activities like the sport of robotics. This will allow the kids to understand their own potential to use science—and that of science and technology—to solve the world’s great problems.”

The actual idea to distribute an affordable robot kit around the world traces its origins to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when WPI students abruptly switched to remote learning in spring 2020 and FIRST needed to keep competitive robotics teams working together on various entries. Both needed to figure out how to get remote students small, relatively inexpensive robots to work on for hands-on experience. Eventually, WPI incorporated a commercially available robot kit that students could purchase and build at home into its curriculum. A similar version was then used in FIRST robotics competitions—one that was able to use WPILib software, which WPI created for FIRST in 2009. From there, WPI and DEKA Research & Development Corp. continued to work together to create the XRP and help increase the global STEM pipeline with support from a National Science Foundation grant through the Engineering For Us All (E4USA) organization.

“The XRP will change the paradigm for hands-on robotics education around the world by dramatically reducing cost, expanding use, and enhancing curriculum support for teachers,” said David Rogers, DEKA’s chief development officer, who worked closely with WPI in developing the XRP platform.

Unlike other platforms that require several upgrades to adapt to higher levels of robotics education, the common programming language used in the XRP kits will also allow students to easily transition to more complicated projects, WPI said.

“We considered every aspect of the design and materials to ensure it could not only function at a high level but remain affordable,” said Brad Miller, former director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center and senior fellow of WPI’s Global STEM Education Initiative. “To have a robot that weighs and costs less than a textbook — so potentially every student in a classroom could have one — was always our guiding light.”

“Being able to see the results of your code executed on a classroom robot is one way of maintaining and really encouraging this excitement and enthusiasm within what can be challenging fields with a number of roadblocks,” said Joe Doiron, director of WPI’s Global Lab and Global STEM Education Initiative.

In the coming months production will increase to provide additional XRPs as needed. In the meantime, WPI announced a larger STEM initiative at both the FIRST Global Challenge and XPrize Summit, also taking place in Geneva this week. The new Global STEM Education Initiative leverages the university’s expertise and resources to help other countries and underserved schools in the U.S. provide high-quality, accessible K-12 STEM education. With the programming, activities, and support provided by this initiative, WPI said it will help educators around the world bring inspiration and possibility to their classrooms.

“If you dream big, even when you have very limited resources, the size of your dreams determines the scope of your impact,” said Soboyejo. “For me, just as important as getting kids excited about STEM, we need to encourage them to dream big and to surround themselves with people that encourage and nurture that dream.”

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