WQED's "The Robot Doctor" Brings CMU Expertise to PA High School Students

"The Robot Doctor" is geared toward high school students who may lack access to a computer during school closures, and who live in areas with limited STEM opportunities.

What do you picture when you think of a robot? That's the first question asked by "The Robot Doctor" — a new series created by Carnegie Mellon University educators, RobotWits, the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative and WQED. Airing on PBS stations across Pennsylvania, the eight-episode program is geared toward high school students who may lack access to a computer during school closures, and who live in underresourced areas with limited STEM opportunities.

"We're going to explore how robots solve the problems that allow them to be useful in the world. We'll do this with nothing more than the math concepts you may already know: geometry, trigonometry, basic algebra and a few concepts from physics," Jonathan Butzke says in the first episode. Butzke, an alumnus of CMU's Robotics Institute, hosts the show and is lead robotics researcher for RobotWits.

Each 14-minute episode includes key concepts, example problems and take-home assignments.

"We are closing the digital divide by creating no-tech and low-tech robotics and STEM content to support educators, students and families during school closures and beyond," said Rachel Burcin, the project co-lead and global programs manager in the Robotics Institute. "At the core of what we are doing is supporting teachers and contributing to equity and inclusion. We are creating accessible and customizable materials that can be used now and throughout the school year."

"'The Robot Doctor' doesn't rely on access to robotics kits, or even high-speed internet since it is broadcasting on public television. The homework and math problems can be worked out with a pen and paper," said Maxim Likhachev. The co-leader of the project is an associate professor in the Robotics Institute and the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), and director of the Search-Based Planning Laboratory (SBPL) at CMU. He also founded RobotWits, a Pittsburgh-based technology company focused on self-driving solutions.

Likhachev said to reinforce the importance of math concepts, the show takes them out of abstraction by offering real-world examples. "If you have a robot arm, how do you know where its end is — that's just a series of sine and cosine operations that are being taught in schools," Likhachev said.

Other episodes discuss how a robot knows where it is in the world, how it follows a line, and the importance and use of different measurement systems, which reflects feedback received from some math teachers about what they wanted to see in the show.

Likhachev said to make the program entertaining for teenagers, they showcase a lot of cool robotics applications from various industries and from Likhachev's lab. "The second episode shows an aerial vehicle falling down. Jonathan Butzke built that himself in my lab while pursuing his Ph.D. My favorite videos are the ones where they fail and crash because it's more fun to watch than when it all goes perfectly," Likhachev said.

In addition to reinforcing math concepts, Likhachev said another goal of the program is to remove barriers and encourage students to pursue STEM careers by addressing the perceived complexity of robotics. "There are a lot of people outside urban areas for whom high-tech careers in robotics seem to be inaccessible. That's who we're targeting, and we're showing that the actual math behind it is all being taught in high school. By pursuing those STEM degrees, it's much closer than you would think," Likhachev said.

"One of the incredible strengths of this project is the broad partnerships from policy, industry and education," Burcin said. Her team has been working closely with the PA Rural Robotics Initiative on the series.

"Geographically, we're not that far from CMU and a hub of STEM careers, but to our kids, those opportunities can feel really distant," said Tim Heffernan, founder of the PA Rural Robotics Initiative, a public-school consortium that provides STEM opportunities to students across the commonwealth and prepares them for STEM careers. "Any time we get a chance to engage with CMU it's amazing because it brings it closer to home and brings opportunities into their grasp. I really feel like this project does that," he said.

Heffernan noted that many of the teachers he works with are looking for opportunities to bring more robotics into their classroom. "We're all starting to move past that initial club mentality, where we started. We all see that STEM isn't a fad or an add-on, it can be a core piece of curriculum," he said.

While PA Rural Robotics has seen a jump in engagement from schools in the past few years, physical robots and participation in robotics competitions can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"'The Robot Doctor' is something easily scalable and affordable. You can engage large numbers of kids, and educators don't need to be roboticists to facilitate it. And in reality, there isn't a surplus of STEM teachers running around," Heffernan said.

To assist educators, Likhachev and his team at RobotWits are providing a variety of direct supports and opportunities for feedback. The team hosts a weekly live Zoom meeting for teachers, plus they're providing teaching assistants and access to a system to help set up lesson plans. A hotline is also being developed.

Heffernan said the series is a great way to empower the teachers he works with. "It's not just 'Here's a video.' It's 'Here's a resource created by a world-class institution and amazing people,' and that's not it. You can engage them one-on-one to better understand how to use this in your classroom. And as a teacher, we always want to be the best we can for our students," he said.

"The Robot Doctor" premiered May 6 with new episodes airing every Wednesday through June 24 at 7:30 p.m. on WQED-TV. A full broadcasting schedule and archived episodes can be found on WQED's website.

For More Information
Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice@cs.cmu.edu
Virginia Alvino Young | 412-268-8356 | vay@cmu.edu