INCHEON — At Inha university middle school in the Seoul suburb of Incheon, robotics teacher Kim Hyung-Ki walks across the room with a wireless microphone and infuses the students with the kind energy you find at political rallies. He punctuates his advice with cheerful slogans like "programming is fun!" and "when you know how to code, you can change the world!"
The 30 students in the class seem enthusiastic. It’s hard to tell. Most of the time, the students — all of them boys in uniforms — have their eyes fixed on their computer screens or on the robots they are building.
Behind them, at the back of the classroom, 3D printers lie near half-built robots, electronic circuits and Lego blocks. This is where students develop machines that will compete in robotics contests between South Korean schools. Certificates hang on the classroom wall, reminders that students here have won many such contests in the past.
Three hours a week, Kim Hyung-Ki teaches his second-year students the basics of robotics. On a recent morning, they had to build and run a "smart bin" — a small cube that has to open and close itself when someone claps his or her hands. In order to do so, students have to set up the right components and write the corresponding bits of code.
The students program their robots with a Korean version of Scratch, a language of code that was developed 10 years ago by the MIT Media Lab. To build their robots, they use a $128 toolkit that was created by Robotis, a local company.
The school works with the university to "identify and experiment with the best teaching practices," says Lee Dong-Sub, the school’s director. All the 300 second-year students learn robotics.
Twenty schools in South Korea offer robotics classes and about 100 teachers will be trained for the next school year, according to Keris, an organization that promotes the use of technology in education.
Robotworld, the biggest robotics exhibition in South Korea, was held last October in Seoul. Right next to the exhibition, the largest robotics contest in the country was held at the same time.
In South Korean schools, computer science started to be taught a decade ago. Programming classes are now compulsory in both middle and high schools.
Source: Inha university
Education is a national obsession in South Korea. Students attend expensive and exhausting private tutoring lessons after school. Toolkits offered by Robotis, or those from its main competitor, Roborobo, are seen as promising purchases.
For Lee Dong-Sub, the goal of teaching code and robotics to middle school students is to make them more creative. "It helps them observe, create and work together," he says. "We teach code and robotics in middle school because in high school, the competition is so intense that they wouldn't have time for this."
Finding the right market
This new approach is completely different from the way robots were used in Korean schools. Before robotics was a class, robots were first seen as assistants to teachers. Just five years ago, "companion robots" were popular. Some imagined that they would soon replace teachers.
Yujin Robotics created an iconic robot of 17 inches called iRobi. It was designed to entertain children in kindergarten or primary school by teaching them nursery rhymes or short stories. Even though iRobi received a lot of media coverage — and 3,000 robots were sold — the product is no longer manufactured and no successor was produced.
"We felt it wasn't a sustainable activity especially because the robot's capacities were too limited," says Kyung Chul Shin, CEO of Yujin Robot.
The company designed another robot called Robosem for schoolchildren. Almost four feet tall, the robot was supposed to teach foreign languages, history and mathematics to students. But at $21,000 (without the software), there wasn’t really a market for the robots. "Neither schools nor the government was willing to pay for the robot and even less for the contents,” Kyung Chul Shin, who is now producing robotic vacuum cleaners, adds.
"There's still a lot of work to do," says Catherine Perotin, assistant director at the National Institute for Educational Research, who took part at a Robotworld education conference. "We have to think in coordination with specialists about what kind of added value the robot can bring, depending on each subject. It is all the more important since the device is attractive. But it will take time because in education it takes time to develop serious work."