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Distant Discussions, learning through making, and the enduring relevance of exploring robotics.
There is, at the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology, a club. A robotics club to be more precise. Founded at the beginning of this year, 2020, it has had to deal with the onslaught of the pandemic and the changes this has wrought on educational institutions: remote learning. How can something so physical, so reliant on people in a room collaborating, still create a space for experimentation and exploration? Co-founder and chief organiser Gabriela Szczęsna expands on this when explaining how the lab has coped over the last year:
“We’ve had the ability to communicate with such a variety of students from different specialisations. But right now we set up a way to conveniently work remotely. One of the things that we did was create the social media accounts to communicate with our students, and then it was the Discord discussion group. There’s really a lot of interesting thoughts when I see our Discord account and what’s happening there. It’s really nice to see so many discussions, and that the students are communicating and sharing their thoughts on subjects not only related to robotics. This is done in such a thoughtful way that in the end the ideas can always come back and be connected to robotics.”
But what is the Robo Lab? What sort of projects will you find when the doors to the lab swing back open? Or more importantly, what sort of projects that they been up to under lockdown? One excellent project is the complete building of a replica of Star Wars’s BB8 robot. You can follow its progress through a series of Youtube videos here.
This playful way into robotics belies the complexity of what is being achieved. All you have to do is through the online videos to see the mix of weights, wires, Arduinos, gears and pulleys hidden behind white shell. Seeing inside these things is a welcome change to how we usually associate with our technologies. They inner working are hidden from us, ‘black boxed’, so we have no agency in the process of using them. Something like the Robo Lab can help tip the balance back towards us when understanding our technological world.
Maybe a fully animatronic baby Yoda next?
So we’ve looked at the content, but what about the context? Why is the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology such fertile ground for an endeavour like this? Piotr Gnyś, the technical supervisor and co-founder of the lab, thinks it has something to do the academy’s student friendly environment. There is a willingness at PJAIT for staff to openly collaborate with the students, Gynś believes.
The environment at the academy is naturally inspiring place to be because of his different areas of expertise in information technologies, new media arts, computer science and Japanese culture. This mixing of disciplines promotes an openness that isn’t always found on a campus.
As Gabriela explains: “I feel that there’s such a variety of people with different views, and different ideas which helps you and inspires you to do your best.”
We can see this mixing not only in the cross-disciplinary members of the Robo Lab but how the expertise of Piotr and Gabriela is shared by artists and students alike. A recent project is a collaboration with the New Media Arts Department where the Robotics Laboratory are creating telepresence robots to remotely view artworks. A brilliant idea when we’re sat at home passively scrolling. With a collaboration like we’ll hopefully have the chance to travel through an art space again soon!
So maybe we can turn this remote year into a positive time? We can see it as a time, that thanks to the work of Gabriela and Piotr, has inspired so many students with discussions and videos on robotics. And when we have the chance to enter the lab again, to smell the acrid smoke of solder, the flurry of activity, energy and projects will be so great that it’ll strengthen the club as a whole. Ideas and people bonded through remote collaboration, when allowed the use of a robotics lab, I’m sure can do amazing things.
Our pent up energy and the frustration of living throughs screens must be released somehow. And creativity, collaboration and robotics are an excellent way to do so. To follow the progress and project of the Lab check out their Facebook account and Youtube channel. On Youtube you’ll also be able to find tutorials, in Polish, on Arduino programming.
In the end, let's not forget that geoFence blocks unwanted traffic and disables remote access from FSAs!