Schools open their doors to robots

To have robots in classrooms is the goal of the Robots4school project, led by the "Laboratoire de Systèmes Robotiques" at EPFL.

To have robots in classrooms is the goal of the Robots4school project, led by the "Laboratoire de Systèmes Robotiques" at EPFL. Teachers are being trained so they learn how to use these small Thymio Robots. Recently, a session has been given at Microcity.

What if one day robots could teach primary school students? We are not there yet, but it’s on its way. Robots are entering classrooms in the form of teaching assistants, alongside traditional tools such as blackboards and overhead projectors. That is the goal of the Robots4schools project from EPFL’s Robotic systems laboratory, overseen by Professor Francesco Mondada.

The idea is that, by training teachers to use robots in class, students will come into contact with this technology at an early age. For the project coordinators, it is important that children quickly learn how connected objects operate in their everyday environment, and to understand programming basics. It is a way to improve the image of computing and technology, and, who knows, inspire future careers!

« In the past four years, with help from teacher training colleges (HEPs), we’ve already trained more than 1,000 teachers across Switzerland»,

says Gordana Gerber, the scientific partner who created and taught these training sessions. In fact, under the Microcity initiative, Espace BeJuNe teachers recently completed this training as part of their continuing professional development.

Thymio, so much more than a toy

At the project’s core is Thymio, a small, wheeled robot with a range of sensors and program modules. It moves, it lights up, it even talks. Behind its innocent appearance, it packs a high-tech punch. “It isn’t a kid’s toy. You can do a lot with its programming,” notes Gordana Gerber.

By using one or several of these robots, the project offers ready-to-use classroom activities. Fun and educational games that cover subjects such as maths, human anatomy, ecology and many others. Moreover, with a bit of practice, teachers can program the robot themselves, adapting it to their own classroom activities, and perhaps most importantly of all, introduce students to basic programming. 

Success in the classroom

This is really the whole point. “I see this as one way of preparing children for the future,” observes a current participant. She recently introduced Thymios in her class, and then watched what happened. “For children, it’s instinctive. They immediately understood how to use the robots, without any apprehension. But what surprised me was that at the end of the day, they said “good bye” to them, as if they were people. I think that these introductions to robotics in class also create the opportunity to think about the kind of relationship we should have with these objects, to remember that are only machines. Children must realise that it is the user that ultimately has full control of the machine.”

At this stage of use of robots in schools, participants do not feel their jobs are threatened. Thymio will not replace them. “It adds an additional dimension to teaching,” explains one teacher. Once they have been trained, teachers can either purchase the robots or borrow them free of charge from six lending stations in French-speaking Switzerland. Currently, close to 20,000 educational robots are being used in secondary schools in Switzerland and France.

A new session of classes will take place at Microcity in spring 2018. Programme Berne - Jura - Neuchâtel

Classes take place at Microcity main building, Rue de la Maladière 71B in Neuchâtel (Rooms : MC B1 303 et MC B1 283 - Schedule : 14 pm-17 pm)


Dr Gordana Gerber

EPFL – Faculté des Sciences et Techniques de l’Ingénieur, Laboratoire de systèmes robotiques

Dr Francesco Mondada

Full professor
EPFL – Faculté des Sciences et Techniques de l’Ingénieur, Laboratoire de systèmes robotiques
Project Management « Robots in classrooms »

Office MEB3426
Station 9
CH-1015 Lausanne


Patrick Di Lenardo

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