All Hail Our Library Robot Overlords

Posted by Tom Bruno on May 05, 2016 at 11:14 AM

In October 2014 The Westport Library introduced robots Nancy and Vincent to our MakerSpace, generating a great deal of interest not only in library circles but in the international media as well. The two diminutive humanoid Nao Robots, made by the French company Aldebaran Robotics and purchased at a cost of $8000 each through a grant and private donation, were added for the purpose of demystifying robotics, teaching computer programming and providing some wonder, according to Maxine Bleiweis, who was Executive Director of the library at the time.

The Nao Robots, which come equipped with cameras, microphones, and various other sensors, are programmable using Python, a common programming language, and can be “taught” via coding to respond to voice commands, recognize faces, carry out conversations, walk, catch and kick a small soccer ball, and other actions. Nancy and Vincent can even perform tai chi together!

Over the past year and a half the Nao Robots have enjoyed a whirlwind tour entertaining and educating crowds both at home and on the road, but the wear and tear on these machines has taken its toll- with Nancy and Vincent making several trips back to the vendor for repairs and upkeep, with an increasing amount of time necessary to prepare the robots between their scheduled engagements. However, this has done nothing to stem the tide of interest in coding and robotics at The Westport Library.

While Nancy and Vincent enjoy their state of semi-retirement- coming out now only by appointment or for special occasions- a new generation of robots has arrived on the scene to assist MakerSpace staff with their mission, including the programmable Dash Robot from Wonder Workshop and the somewhat less functional but more fun Star Wars BB-8 Droid from Sphero. Additionally, the MakerSpace has recently backed a KickStarter campaign by Primo Toys for Cubetto, a hands-on coding toy where children can program a robot by arranging wooden blocks on a board. The MakerSpace has also expanded its coding instruction with workshops featuring Arduino and Raspberry Pi, as well as offering classes in Scratch, a free visual programming language created at MIT.

The impact of Nancy and Vincent has reached well beyond robotics, however. As Alex Giannini, Manager of Experiential Learning, observes: the Nao Robots brought a large cross-section of people into the library, many of whom had a diverse range of Maker interests of their own. As a result of coming to interact with the robots, many of these people became members of our extended MakerSpace community and brought their own expertise with them, both broadening and deepening our expertise as well. What began with a pair of robots has now blossomed into a space where anything can be imagined and realized, including our current community build: a 20-foot dragon being sculpted out of clay, molded in silicone and cast in fiberglass!

As library MakerSpaces expand beyond their traditional STEM origins, it is worth remembering that the Ancient Greek root for technology is techne, which literally means craftsmanship or art. Embracing other forms of hands-on, experiential learning is not a rejection of high-tech MakerSpace features such as 3-D printing, coding and robotics, but simply recognition that these are part of a broader discipline which encompasses the full range of STEAM education. Our library robot overlords Nancy and Vincent have not only been excellent ambassadors for science and engineering, but the arts as well.

Tom Bruno

Director of Knowledge Curation and Innovation

The Westport Library