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High-tech kit lets kids make lifelike robots

This crafty little cardboard man, powered by the

This crafty little cardboard man, powered by the Hummingbird kit, plays a drum. The hi-tech kit consists of a customizable control board along with a variety of lights, sensors and motors that can be connected to the controller without soldering. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

An imagination geared toward making robots from cardboard boxes can quickly fade once the lure of playtime is replaced with a fear of science and technology learning.

But a team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers are betting that a toy designed to bring cardboard friends to life could be the tool that makes creating technology just another part of play.

The Hummingbird -- a kit featuring electronic sensors, motors and everything else required to turn a craft project into a robot -- was unrolled for commercial sale in July after six years of research.

The kit, which was developed through CMU's CREATE Lab, also features simple programming software that allows students who are just learning the ins and outs of technology to customize their robots with distinct sounds, movements and other defining features. The kits are being sold for $119 through a CMU spinoff company, BirdBrain Technologies.

"We want students to become inventors of technology rather than users of technology," said Illah Nourbakhsh, CMU robotics professor who leads CREATE Lab. "Hummingbird feeds a student's natural curiosity about technology by enabling her to incorporate robotics into something she is making that is meaningful or useful."

Hummingbird went through several iterations before reaching its current stage, said CREATE Lab senior research associate Emily Hamner.

With emotional expression, dancing and general flexibility in movement being some of the key requests from students, CREATE Lab narrowed down what types of tools and equipment could be used to help students create the robots of their desires.

BirdBrain chief executive Tom Lauwers said each kit contains  motors and a master controller to manage movement but also features motion-detecting sensors and servos to allow for specific ranges of movement (raised arms or eyebrows), sound detectors and color-changing LED lights, which are typically used to change eye color.

"Everyone knows red eyes means you're angry," Lauwers said.

Zee Poerio, a teacher at St. Louise de Marillac school in Pittsburgh, said building a replica of a mythical Greek monster engaged students in ancient studies in a way that extended even beyond the school year.

The Gorgon coin featured tri-color LEDs to create glowing eyes that change from blue to red, distance sensors that recognized when students were near, and a servo that wagged the monster's tongue

Students programmed the coin to make a roaring sound in response to certain actions this year, but were offering suggestions to have it tell the myth of Medusa next year.

Outside the classroom, she said students began noticing the use of electronic sensors in devices all around them.

"One student made the observation about the distance sensor on the automatic soap dispenser in the restroom and came to the conclusion that it needed to be adjusted to a shorter distance so soap wouldn't be wasted.

A younger student had an "aha" moment after activating the distance sensor on the Gorgon robot and said, 'Now I know how those sliding glass doors magically open when you walk up to them or when you go into a store, there's a distance sensor in there, right?' " she said.

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