Kids Befriend Robots in Playful After-School Research Program | VTX

With a simple touch of a screen, Pepper, the robot, came to life.

Jentry Wetmore, 7, was there for that.

She started moving her hands like an orchestra conductor as soon as the 4-foot-tall robot started talking, playing music and waving its plastic human-like arms, fingers and hands. Eventually, the second-grader broke into a dance right there in the library at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School in Elliston.

“It’s so much fun,” Wetmore said after slowing down to catch his breath. “I like robots.”

His reaction matched that of many other students in the midst of a noisy library scene on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Some sat on the ground trying to coax Aibo, a robot dog, to fetch a ball and walk towards them. Others experimented with oranges and a tomato which, when connected to a laptop, made different sounds when touched.

There was a lot of laughter, even shouting.

This is actually the purpose of the program, which aims to help students become familiar with the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

A team of Virginia Tech researchers is studying how children process technical information while learning the fundamentals of robotics, such as basic controls and programming. But it’s not just technology on the table.

At the end of the 13-week program, students perform a theatrical production for their families, using the robots as acting companions. The program, in partnership with Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, includes sections that allow students to play, dance, draw and listen to music. A Halloween play is planned as the finale of this Eastern Montgomery experience.

Ryan H. Bowman