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CEO Interview: The Future of RoboCo

This interview will get all of the gears in your head turning! ⚙️

We recently had the pleasure of meeting with Dan White, our CEO, to discuss the future of our robotics sandbox game, RoboCo. In this conversation, we delve into the unique features that set RoboCo apart from other robotics-related games in the market, its role in the education space, the challenges and opportunities of integrating robotics into educational curricula, and much more. Read on to learn all about our leader’s vision for RoboCo and how he sees the game evolving as time goes on!

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you envision the future of RoboCo? Are there any specific industries or sectors where you see its potential?

RoboCo is interesting because it’s a learning game, and learning games are unique in the fact that they play well in both formal and informal learning environments. If we’ve done our job well, then we’ve packaged a lot of the things into the game that somebody who is entirely self-directed would need in order to have a great time building robots, learning about mechanical engineering, and trying their hand at Python scripting

However, there are a lot of things about robotics that RoboCo tees up but does not take home, from an instructional perspective. Concepts that you would need more instruction to fully learn. RoboCo could be paired with an instructor as part of a formal scope and sequence of learning.

That’s why ultimately we’re most excited about RoboCo being used in scaffolded learning environments – whether that’s a formal learning environment like a classroom, a technology class, a coding class, a science class, in a maker space, or part of a program at a library. It also could be used in a straight-up robotics class or in an after-school robotics club, FIRST club, or STEM programming club. Those are really exciting use cases where the game is surrounded by a curriculum in order to make explicit some of the concepts that the game tees up for the learner, but doesn’t drive home. 

The game also has a lot of applications for career and technical education classes, which are classes that are geared more toward specifically preparing students for STEM jobs after they graduate high school. The game does a really nice job of priming learners to be roboticists. It doesn’t turn them into roboticists, but it provides a thorough conceptual foundation for players interested in future careers in robotics.

What are the key features or innovations in RoboCo that set it apart from other robotics-related games in the market?

Usually, when robotics is turned into software, the emphasis is placed on the programming side/the computer engineering side of robotics, which is to say, either through a visual scripting language like Block.ly, Scratch, or through text-based programming. Players are programming a pre-built robot in order to navigate a course, and that’s great. 

But the thing that makes RoboCo unique and special is that it contains both computer engineering and mechanical engineering. You’re not programming anything until you’ve built your robot. You can build the exact robot that you want to build because the building toolset is deep and powerful. 

Programming something that is pre-canned is a different kind of cognition when compared to programming something you have designed from scratch. There’s a difference in the type of thinking that you do when you’re thinking through a problem from the ground up and then designing the entire solution, inclusive of the robot itself and all the programming needed to make that robot function as intended, versus compartmentalizing the programming aspect. It’s more authentic to the problem-solving process that engineers do. 

RoboCo offers a holistic experience that is closer to what you get in actual robotics design than what exists in games that are either discreetly about robotics or discreetly about coding. When you’re working with real robots, the parts you’re using often dictate the kind of coding that’s going to be applied. 

How do you see RoboCo contributing to the education space?

I’d like to see RoboCo reach students that otherwise may have a difficult time accessing robotics education. I’d like to see it expand the robotics education community farther and faster than it otherwise could if it was limited by access to physical robotics kits.

In your opinion, what are some of the challenges and opportunities in integrating robotics and programming into educational curricula?

One of the biggest challenges is just having enough hardware for everybody to be able to participate. Another big challenge is the speed, or lack thereof, of iteration that students are able to do when working with physical hardware. This is particularly problematic for people who are brand new to robotics and don’t really have many intrinsic reasons to be motivated yet. For those people, it’s very important that they are able to build and iterate on their designs quickly in order to develop a tacit understanding of the engineering design process, and the power and value of robotics and engineering design thinking in general. 

If you get bogged down in the more manual side of the experience, where you’re trying to screw parts together and get things wired up, and struggling to get anything to work at all, you may become demotivated and lose sight of the core instructional goals that take place during that early part of the process, which is primarily about forming conceptual understandings of the engineering design process and thinking differently. 

In those early stages of learning robotics, you’re learning to think about the design space like an engineer. You’re not just trying random things and seeing what happens without putting any thought into it. Rather, you’re stepping back, analyzing the problem, thinking about different potential solutions, and thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of each of those solutions. 

From there, you’re designing a very intentional robot to test your first hypothesis. Then iterating on that robot in very intentional ways based on the results as opposed to attempting the same thing again but trying to get better at the controls or by changing something random about your robot. It’s like the scientific method. There’s a reason this process works. The ability to rapidly iterate in the digital format helps students master those conceptual understandings much faster than they otherwise might if they were slowed down by the manual process.  

All of that said, we’re definitely not anti-physical robotics. We’re not looking to replace physical robotics with RoboCo. We do consider it a really powerful augment to a physical kit that has strengths that physical kits don’t. RoboCo is a great introductory tool for somebody who is trying to introduce students to robotics, is starting from scratch, and doesn’t have access to any kind of programming or any kind of expertise in robotics. We would love for students to get started with robotics in general, whether it’s in RoboCo or in a physical space. No matter what, someone learning robotics is always going to end up in the physical realm of the subject. 

Are there any ongoing research or development initiatives within Filament Games that aim to enhance RoboCo‘s capabilities or expand its reach?

One of the big things that we’re doing right now is trying to figure out how to make the on-ramp as smooth as possible for new roboticists. A big part of RoboCo’s value proposition is that it’s beginner friendly, but that’s a tall order because robotics is hard. Robotics is not supposed to be easy, but if we’re going to try to create more roboticists then we need to not just make it fun and engaging, which we’ve succeeded in already, but we also need to make it approachable for new players and to scaffold them into robotics as gradually as possible, step by step. From one skill to the next. 

That’s the thinking behind some of the new single-objective challenges that we’re planning on adding to the game. Those single directive challenges in combination with some of the RoboRepair Tutorials that we already have in the game will make sure that we are presenting players with the right problem at the right time. The goal is to present players with challenges that are right at the edge of their ability, but still feel doable so that they stay motivated and interested.  

The other thing we’re working on is adding new parts. The next new part that we’re adding is springs. Talk to any roboticist or mechanical engineering nerd and they’ll tell you that springs are a critical part of designing all sorts of different types of contraptions.  They’re also just a ton of fun too. With each new part we add, there are that many more opportunities to dig into mechanical engineering learning objectives

For springs in particular, there are all sorts of things that you can teach people about physics because the physics of springs are super cool and interesting.  Each part can be a mini-lesson unto itself. Each part is also a little window of insight into the different tools that actual engineers have in their tool belt in order to design solutions to problems. 

What are your thoughts on the role of game-based learning in robotics education? How does RoboCo leverage game-based learning elements to engage learners?

Good games are basically just problem-solving engines. Robotics and the engineering design process are, at their core, a methodology for using parts like motors, gears, pistons, and springs in order to solve problems in the real world. Whether robots are automated or not, they are solutions to problems that either enhance efficiency, do jobs that are too dangerous for actual humans to do, or do things more expediently or for less cost than a human could. Regardless of what type of robot you’re designing, the robot itself is not the point. Problem-solving is the central activity that you’re engaging in. 

Games are so well suited to any kind of problem-oriented curriculum, any project-based or problem-based learning. Problem-based learning is becoming an increasingly popular pedagogy because it mirrors so many different real-world practices and professions. Games make for interesting problem spaces where a lot of learning can take place.

Looking ahead, what are your long-term goals for RoboCo? How do you see it evolving in the next few years?

We have big dreams for RoboCo. We think of RoboCo as an esport in that we think of it as an extension of the amazing work that FIRST and FIRST Global have been doing over the years to turn robotics and STEM education into a sport essentially. The educational methodology of taking STEM and robotics and turning it into a sport is really smart because it allows young people to form relationships and identities around those practices. That’s a lot of what youth sports, in general, are about. 

It’s great to have young people forming relationships and identities around kicking and throwing balls, but it’s really powerful to have them doing that around a set of skills, mindsets, and perspectives that also translate into really valuable high-paying jobs in society. One of our big goals is to make RoboCo into an esport and to have regular events and other types of competitions where players are collaborating and competing as they normally would while playing a sport.  

Another big vision we have for RoboCo is that we want to expose far more people to robotics and engineering than would otherwise be feasible or practical if you didn’t have a digital solution. We want to invite those people into the engineering mindset and affinity space. We don’t have any delusions that RoboCo is going to turn somebody into a full-fledged engineer, but it’s a potent tool for introducing young people to engineering and robotics and getting them excited about those disciplines so that they can go on and join their local first robotics club or consider majoring in engineering robotics after they graduate from school. Equity of access is a really big part of the dream we have RoboCo. If we can lower the floor for entry into robotics and engineering and expose millions of young people to those fields to get them interested and excited, I think that would be a huge service to the world. 

There can be a lot of fear and trepidation about robots from the perspective of job displacement and modification to the workforce. But personally, one of the things that I’m most excited about when I think about robotization and automation is building technology-based solutions to some of the world’s most challenging and pressing problems, like climate change, for example.

One of the things that FIRST and FIRST Global do a really nice job of is ensuring that students aren’t just building robots in order to solve problems, but they’re solving particular types of problems. Usually, their problems are themed around larger challenges that society faces.  For example, this year FIRST Global’s theme is around carbon capture. I’m excited about a future in which, whether through partnerships with FIRST and FIRST Global or other organizations or even independently, we can design challenges that allow players to design solutions to important, pressing real-world problems – cleaning up plastics, lowering the global temperature, hunger, and so on. 

These are all things that actual, real-world roboticists are thinking about and designing solutions for. There are opportunities for students to get excited about the power of the engineering design process both in terms of being able to make cool robots that do cool things and in terms of being able to make robots that actually have a really profound positive impact on the world. 

As you can tell, RoboCo is not just an ordinary robotics game but a transformative educational tool with vast potential. With its emphasis on both computer engineering and mechanical engineering, RoboCo offers a holistic learning experience that mirrors the problem-solving processes of real-world roboticists. By leveraging game-based learning elements, RoboCo engages learners and fosters an engineering mindset and affinity for robotics. We hope that RoboCo will increase access to and enthusiasm for STEM learning for students around the world.

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