A garden made of robotic flowers? Sure, if it’ll get kids to code

May a 100 robotic flowers bloom. (Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL)
May a 100 robotic flowers bloom. (Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL)

A robotic garden with mechanical insects, origami birds, and LED flowers that can bloom on command is the latest tool that teachers can use to get kids interested in programming.  

The “robot garden” kit, developed by MIT, features more than 100 individual robots, including eight different kinds of flowers, that can each act on individual commands or follow instructions addressed to the group.

These metal ducks started out as a 2D cut-out, flat like paper. When they were warmed in an oven, metal responded to the heat, folding into the right shape. (Photo: Joseph DelPreto/CSAIL) These metal cranes started out as a 2D cut-out, flat like paper. When they were warmed in an oven, metal responded to the heat, folding into the right shape. (Photo: Joseph DelPreto/CSAIL)

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory designed the colorful, shape-shifting setup to appeal to school kids of all ages, and get them interested in programming early on.

The individual elements can be programmed using the open-source Arduino microcontrollers, a favorite among hackers and DIYers. Once programmed, the exhibit can be controlled by a tablet computer.

Adorable programmable robotic toys such as Sphero, built by the Colorado firm Orbotix, are already a hit among educators seeking to hook their wards on STEM concepts, and computer science in particular.

What’s different about robotic garden, besides the variety of elements, is that it lends itself well to a lesson in what’s known as “distributed computing” — the concept of programming many simple, but networked, objects.

“Students can see their commands running in a physical environment, which tangibly links their coding efforts to the real world,” Lindsay Sanneman, an MIT student who led the team that designed the setup, said in a release.

The next step is to enable the garden to be controlled by multiple devices at the same time.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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