Teaching a Robot New Tricks

Teaching a Robot New Tricks

As a provocation for the unit, “Where We Are in Place and Time”, Grade 5 did not expect the surprise waiting for them in the classroom on Monday, August 17th, 2020. The students sat down to find the accouterments for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich displayed at the front of the room. Mr. Russell moved robotically around the room. Then, he introduced himself as the latest and greatest in robotic technology. 

The challenge presented was for the students to take an everyday task then break it down into instructions for the robot to execute. Hilarity ensued when, while following the instructions given for drinking a glass of water, the robot simply put the whole glass into its mouth. The instruction read simply, “put the glass into your mouth”, while the following instruction read “drink the water.”

This activity illustrated that the majority of our communication is implied, and why the words we choose are important. One person instructs another person to put something “on that shelf over there” when knowing that said shelf is actually a bookcase. The same is not true for a computer or robot, which only does exactly what it is told. It cannot understand what one meant to tell it. Students quickly understood the activity, then began to refine their instructions.

Eventually, an algorithm, or ready made solution to a problem, was designed. This allowed the students to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Each student robot completed their sandwich making task successfully. Thankfully, enjoying the sandwiches themselves wasn’t bound by any robotic instructions. 

The central idea of this unit is language has been used throughout history to record experiences. In this activity, the students explored how we express ourselves implicitly without thinking about the meaning of the words.  


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