In the ten years since it was created, the Flowers project team at the Inria Bordeaux-Sud-Ouest Centre has become a key player in the Artificial Intelligence research ecosystem and also as an actor of scientific outreach. By modelling learning in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, the objective of its research is to understand how children and machines can learn and memorise models and skills efficiently over time. In particular, the team studies learning mechanisms guided by “curiosity” and models certain aspects of human motivation systems. It has notably applied its research topics to fields such as video games, robotics, educational technologies, man-machine interaction and automated discovery. This work has also led the team to develop outreach tools to allow children to discover digital sciences in a motivating context that stimulates curiosity.
By developing pedagogical tools for teachers using robots as an educational context, Flowers helps facilitate teaching digital science in schools,
explains Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, the team manager.
A tangible and interdisciplinary teaching tool
Educational robotics refers to a series of approaches to design activities for teaching digital science. Based on the use of robots as a tool, it facilitates the understanding of these concepts by making teaching more attractive and motivating. In contrast to the world of screens, this tangible tool allows concrete activities to be used to address sometimes abstract concepts and has shown itself to be an excellent context for introducing artificial intelligence and digital science to a wider audience.
Artificial intelligence is having a growing impact on today’s society from an economic, social and health point of view. Robotics is a good educational tool to help teach artificial intelligence in a more concrete way. It really just provides a context for understanding that this is a developing field that will soon enter other aspects of our lives,
says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer.
Flowers, a key player in educational robotics
To encourage teaching of digital science, the Flowers project team organises multiple educational activities, such as using simple robots like Thymio, designed at the EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne). Using these robots, teachers guide their pupils through educational tasks and encourage them to consider different questions in relation to technology or human factors : What is a motor ? What is a sensor ? What is a computer ? What tendency do people have to use words that anthropomorphise the relationship between humans and machines ?
Flowers also initiated the "Poppy" project with the aim of creating a platform for different types of open source robots to model children’s learning mechanisms and understand the role of the body in learning. Pierre-Yves Oudeyer explains that “during the development phase, the team realised that the toolbox they had designed met the needs of high school and university teachers for using robots as teaching tools. They needed a flexible tool that they could build themselves to introduce pupils to electronics and 3D printing ...”.
- Pollen Robotics is a start-up from Flowers that designs robots to understand programming and artificial intelligence in a fun and interactive way.
In the framework of a PhD by Thibault Desprez, funded by the eFran PERSEVERONS project, the Poppy toolbox was therefore adjusted to study how different digital pedagogical tools could make certain lessons more motivating in a school environment. One of the dimensions of the study concerned educational robotics. Today, the Poppy educational robotics kits are managed by the “Poppy Station”, a consortium of educational actors.
A mediation tool among many others
There are many tools available today for digital science outreach, of which educational robotics is one of the most renowned examples. According to Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, however, it is a combination of different types of tools that will allow young audiences to become fully aware of digital science in all its diversity. While video games and the internet can introduce them to programming and the Internet, non-connected activities - not related to computers or robots - can encourage them to reflect on social challenges in these fields. The researcher also recently created an outreach book on artificial intelligence and robotics for a wide target audience with his co-worker Didier Roy.
By addressing children through reading (via educational booklets, for example), we can spark discussion on these subjects between them and their parents. This allows the child to have social discussions about these issues, and the parents to learn about the fields and how they are connected to society.
Team manager of Flowers
A large ecosystem
Positioned at the heart of the challenges in digital technology and education, Inria (thanks to the commitment of project teams such as Flowers) is fully involved in this educational ecosystem which brings together multiple players in outreach and research, such as schools and teachers, associations, academic partners and EdTech businesses throughout France and beyond. Further afield, the LEARN laboratory by Francesco Mondada at EPFL, of which Flowers researcher Didier Roy is an associate member, focusses its research on educational robotics in itself. Its mission, which only uses outreach tools based on this topic, is very different to that of our Bordeaux team.