RobotsLAB Blog

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 17, 2014 1:09:00 PM


A 2012 study of adults in 20 countries found that Americans ranked near the bottom in numeracy. Numeracy being defined simply as the ability to work with and understand numbers. What’s worse is that other studies showed that even the most educated among us displayed a deplorable inability to work with numbers: almost twenty percent of medical prescription  showed math mistakes on the part of doctors and pharmacists. How can this be?

Why Do Americans Stink At Math is the title of an article written by Elizabeth Green for the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, July 23, 2014. The thesis is that the deplorable state of math education in the USA is the result of poor carry through on the part of our most highly placed educators.  In spite of attempts to change the teaching of math by engaging students in actually studying math rather than memorizing it, the change is not happening. As evidence of this failure Ms Green relates the story of a Japanese educator who used math-teaching theory and methods developed in the USA to improve Japanese schools by engaging students but found these same theories and methods either ignored or misunderstood and misused in American schools. That Japanese educator  thinks “Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them.”  Again, why?

According to the article, American educators in the most important and influential teaching colleges don’t actually spend a whole lot of time teaching; they are into research and publishing. The result is great theory but poorly communicated methodology with the teachers actually teaching students. Common Core Standards provide us with a recent example of this disconnect.

Explains Ms Green, “With the Common Core, teachers are once more being asked to unlearn an old approach and learn an entirely new one, essentially on their own. Training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support.  Magdalene Lampert, a professor of education at the University of Michigan notes “In the hands of unprepared teachers, alternative algorithms are worse than just teaching them standard algorithms.”  What results, of course, is confusion leaping from teacher to student to parent. A sequence Ms Green illustrated with this amusing anecdote:  The comedian Louis C.K. parodied his daughters’ homework in an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”: “It’s like, Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?”

Textbooks haven’t really made the jump to Common Core either. They have  “have received only surface adjustments, despite the shiny Common Core labels that decorate their covers.”  On the textbook issue, no less a personage than Phil Daro, a senior member of America’s Choice and one of three principal writers of the math Common Core Standards agrees, “To have a vendor say their product is Common Core is close to meaningless…”

It is not necessary to agree with every point made in this article to agree with the overall conclusion so succinctly implied by the title, that Americans do indeed stink at math.  And there is no doubt that teaching methodology must be greatly improved if we in this country are to retain our technological superiority. Engagement, not rote learning must be encouraged.  Our goal here at RobotsLAB is to provide teachers with technological aids, our robots and included curricula, that will engage and encourage students to study rather than memorize.

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Topics: Math

Engaging students a creative teacher project

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 16, 2014 2:39:34 PM


Teachers, need some new lesson plan ideas to meet the requirements of the new Common Core Standards? Well, BetterLesson.Com and your own Union, the National Education Association's Master Teacher Project heard your cry for the help that you weren't getting from your administrators and came up with a plan of their own: they searched out lesson plans from 95 or more of the best teachers in the country and paid them $15,000 each to put their plans online with  All these plans and related materials that they paid for are now online free for your perusal. Besides affording teachers fresh ideas, Instructional philosophies and implementation tips will also be provided with the lesson plans.

Nor is the NEA alone in assisting teachers in working within the new paradigm. In 2012 the American Federation of Teachers worked out a similiar lesson-sharing plan with ShareMyLesson.Com. Unlike the NEA, the AFT has teachers post their own plans. Like the NEA, the AFT shares the plans for free. This plan too, appears successful as it has 250,000 registered members and has had almost two-and-half million lesson downloads during the 2012-2013 school year.

In many quarters, Common Core has not been met with positive reviews. The transition has not been smooth. The complaint that teachers were given insufficient training is common. While there is no substitute for that training, both of these websites, BetterLesson.Com and ShareMyLesson.Com might help teachers get by until they get the training they deserve.

RobotsLAB is also in the business of assisting teachers with meeting the requirements of the new Common Core standards. Our engaging robotic teaching aids and their included curricula have been designed with the standards in mind and will provide your classrooms with effective alternatives to boring texts.   

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Topics: Education, Student Engagement

3D printer in the classroom making and unstructured exploration

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 15, 2014 2:57:00 PM


When I was a kid and enormous cars with long sharp tail fins ruled the road, it was said and believed by many, "If it's good for General Motors, it's good for America." Not so today with GM recently coming out of bankruptcy. But things haven't changed all that much, only the names of the mega corporations we worship. Yesteryear it was GM, today it's Google. And with good reason: GM came roaring out of the Second World War the largest, most productive business on the planet; they were doing something right! The same for Google in this era; their search engine and browser rules the Internet. Their cellphone operating system connects the globe.

With Google products dominating the new industrial age, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Google workplace practices are garnering a lot of attention--and emulation--in business and education. Chief among these much emulated practices is 20% Time.

20% Time, as defined by the Google practice, is allowing their employees 20% of their work time to work on creative projects that are unrelated to the employee’s assigned projects. The result has been the creative surge that brought Google to the forefront of its industry.

In education, 20% Time allows kids a chance to take their attention off class content and get creative. Oh, sure, you say, untethering kids from classroom routine and letting them get creative sounds great, but without structure in the classroom you soon get chaos. Good point! The way to avoid chaos is to add a touch of chaos-preventing structure. The Maker Place is a great way to add that structure.  

The Maker Place isn’t simply a portion of the classroom where kids are turned loose to get into trouble. The idea is to provide a space where kids can loose their creativity with engaging projects suggested by teachers and other students . The Maker Place should also include the materials ( 3D printer ) necessary to complete the projects.

RobotsLAB’s STEM BOT 3D CLASS provides both the curriculum and the materials for a perfect Maker Place. The STEM BOT 3D CLASS teaches students how to 3D print a robot, assemble it, work on the electronics, use a 3D printer and finally program it using Scratch.Kids love robots. It doesn’t take much effort on the part of the teacher to get them interested in making one.

Educators, give some thought to freeing up time for your students creative urges--without losing control, of course. 20% Time works for Google. It might work for you.  

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NAO robot illustrating a TechCrunch article

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 14, 2014 2:08:00 PM


Wondering how to teach a kid to write? How about helping a kid teach a robot to write?  Committed teachers have been saying forever that they learned more from their students than they learned from them. Might this have the same profound effect on students working from the teacher’s perspective?

I don’t have the answer to this riddle. The question simply came to me when I stumbled over this great picture of the French company Aldebaran’s anthropomorphic robot NAO hovering studiously over a digital pad seemingly writing an earnings report for the Associated Press. Looking stiff with the pencil at an uncomfortable angle and totally focused, doesn’t NAO look a lot like a kid learning to write?

Actually the blog post with this picture is talking about robots that look less like humans and more like computers. But how better to illustrate the point that computers are freeing humans from boring jobs?  NAO, after all, is the most widely used anthropomorphic robot for educational and research purposes.

Not only anthropomorphic, but autonomous also. Which brings me back to the question about NAO as a possible student and the student as a teacher. In my experience kids like to act like teachers. I know I did, and I can remember my youngest teaching to an attentive Jack Russell Terrier. NAO is programmed to be even more attentive than the Jack Russell--and speaks better English--and French, German, and dozens more. NAO is better disciplined also and won’t interrupt the teacher with barking when the doorbell rings.

NAO is a favorite with us here at RobotsLAB. We put a great deal of effort into  developing curricula that

provides NAO with the ability to keep kids engaged in learning. While writing copy for the AP is a stretch at the moment, it is certainly only a matter of time.  

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Topics: NAO

NAO Humanoid robot coming soon to the library

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 13, 2014 12:37:00 PM


I can remember the indignation I felt the first time I found video tapes in the public library; a desecration, I thought! Libraries are for books, not light-weight, made-for-tv documentaries!  I kept holding my nose when I walked by those shelves until I missed Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War on tv and the only place I could find it guessed it, the public library. Alas, virtue once lost is virtue overcome and I found myself welcoming the computer into the library (a screen search beats the old card system any day), and absolutely thrilled with the coming of the Kindle; so the idea of anthropomorphic robots on the library floor doesn’t bother me at all.  

Like it or not, public libraries are in a competition with the internet for information-delivery relevance. The internet delivers text and imagery with a speed the library cannot; public libraries, on the other hand, can deliver the real thing. Watching a video about robots is interesting, but actually interacting with one is both interesting and fun--just ask any kid!  

One of the first libraries to acquire these tradition shattering mechanical beasties is the WestPort Public Library in Westport Conn.  The Westport library has broken the mold before; specifically, by  setting up a “Maker” space for its patrons and installing a 3D printer,  technology that President Obama has referred to as the “future of manufacturing.” Now, the library intends to introduce its patrons to robots. "Robotics is the next disruptive technology coming into our lives and we felt it was important to make it accessible to people so they could learn about it," said Maxine Bleiweis, executive director of the Westport Library. "From an economic-development perspective and job- and career-development perspective, it's so important."  

The robots, named Vincent and Nancy, are “Nao Evolution Robots,” the latest model NAO robot created by the French robotics company Aldebaran. Standing about three-feet high and looking a bit like the anthropomorphic robot C-3PO in Star Wars, they have a mild, calming way about them that has made them an important tool in teaching autistic children. They are not simple windup toys with a limited behavioral repertoire; besides walking and talking, they recognize faces, can detect where sound is coming from, touch, feel, and avoid obstacles; more, library staff and patrons can program them to do all sorts of entertaining and even practical things, like help find books and meet children arriving at the library. Says Alex Giannini, the library digital-experience manager, "I don't know what the coolest functionality is going to be. Someone coming in off the street is probably going to teach us that."

Nao robots in libraries is a novel development (no pun intended), but these robots are by far the most popular robots used in science education and are found in schools worldwide. Many of these engaging robots have been sold by RobotsLAB along with lesson plans designed for students of all ages. Teachers interested in presenting their classes with an educational experience their students will remember for ever can find more about NAO at our website.  

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Is doodling a good teaching tool?

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 10, 2014 4:57:00 PM


Just guessing, but if you’ve achieved an educational level that makes the overall material in this blog at all interesting you were probably a doodler when you were a student. I was, but that isn’t the only reason for this otherwise unwarranted assumption: recent studies show that doodlers retain and process 29% more information while listening to a lecture. Who knew?

Exactly why doodling provides an advantage is still a matter of conjecture.  Some educators don’t care why, they are simply looking for any advantage they can find that will help students succeed. Sunni Brown from Austin, Texas is among that number. Considered  one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business and one of the “10 Most Creative People on Twitter”  by the business magazine, Fast Company,  Ms Brown fervently believes in the power and value of doodling.  She is the Chief “Infodoodler” (this position title found on Wiki) of Sunni Brown Ink, a “visual thinking consultancy” with which she pursues her passion.

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Tech education can't start too early!

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 9, 2014 4:24:00 PM


The programming language "Scratch" is for young people that have an itch to create interactive games, stories and animations online. Designed originally for kids 8 through 16, it is offered free by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Lifelong Kindergarten Group believes its interactive programming language provides the young with essential skills for 21st Century employment, including the ability to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively.

Scratch Jr., the newest example of this language from prestigious MIT is designed for even younger students, preschoolers as young as five. A new Ipad app is now available for these younger kids. Scratch Jr. was developed with mobile devices rather than computers in mind like Scratch. Its developers hope that the language will meet the following educational goals for younger kids:

  • give them a better understanding of literacy and math

  • help them become familiar  with classifications of various computer software and mathematical components

  • help them learn to be problem solvers and thinkers and better understand science and software development

A personal note here: The last time I had babysitting duty I downloaded the Scratch Jr App to my Ipad and handed it over without comment to my seven-year-old grandson, Fox. He likes cats and I thought he might take to it. He did. Also without comment.

I wandered off leaving him completely unsupervised in my recliner with the Ipad inches from his face. When I returned a few minutes later he had already completed three projects.


“Was it fun?” I asked


“Did you learn anything?” I said, knowing I was pressing my luck.

He rolled his eyes in answer and went back to playing with the app.

Another learning tool for the younger set that Fox and his three-year-old brother Dexter both like is RobotsLABS' own CUBELETS.  Their small hands find these little magnetic blocks safe and easy to manipulate. They get a big kick out of the autonomous robots they can make entirely on their own. It pleases their parents and me to see them developing their ability to think procedurally and learning to solve problems in a step-by-step manner.


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STEM's Newest Darling: Robotics

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 8, 2014 6:19:00 PM



Me, being a believer in the robot as a teaching tool,I was at first a little put off by the title of a recent article in the Boston Globe, STEM's Newest Darling: Robotics; a bit cloying, I thought.  The subtitle, It’s the 21st century’s newest must-study subject, came across as patronizing.  I felt certain my favorite machines were in for a verbal drubbing. And guess what, after reading the entire article I've decided my first opinion was almost entirely wrong!  Error! Error! Will Robinson!

Oh, I guess I could still fault the article writer for his off-putting approach in the title, but I certainly can't complain about what he had to say about robots and education; it was highly complementary and informative.  It's good to see that Massachusetts, the home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), really gets it. Maybe it was the fear that Massachusetts, certainly one of the most progressive states in matters of education, didn't get it, that put me off at first (Ok, Ok, I won't use any further renditions of the term 'off-put' in this post!).

Anyway, Massachusetts does seem to be a hotbed for STEM learning using robotics. An elementary school in Boston’s oldest community, the North End, plans to use robots in Kindergarten classes. And the “inventor-in-residence” (a PHD from MIT) at a private school in Brookline where they intend to integrate programming into all the classes K6-12 says, “robotics is not about building real-life C-3POs, quasi-humans… Instead, it’s a way of combining sensors, computer programming, and actuators to solve problems in the physical world.”  The president of  Worchester Polytechnic Institute, Laurie Leshin, has this to say about the importance of introducing robots early in a student’s career and sticking with them: “Second- and third-graders get this stuff inherently,” she says. “By the time they get to middle and high school, life has beaten out of them some of that interest, and I think robots are a way to get that back.” We couldn’t agree more!

The one disagreement I still have with this article comes near the end where the author says, “The last and maybe biggest challenge, as schools try to start programs, is teachers.”  The author quotes the principal of a Boston K-8 school that says it is difficult to add robots to a classroomunless you have a person who has expertise and is motivated.”  The best teacher is always a motivated teacher, but we here at RobotsLAB would argue that a motivated teacher who lacks expertise in robotics should not be held back.  Any well-motivated teacher skilled in their own discipline, be that math, science, engineering or whatever, will find themselves capable of engaging and educating their class from day-one with nothing more than the material we provide with our robots.

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3 myths about Edtech in the classroom

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 7, 2014 3:53:00 PM


A recent post on the role of technology in education made me take another look at our approach here at RobotsLAB. The post discussed three “myths” the writer found prevalent: myth 1 was that educational technology “was all about disruption;” myth 2 was that it was “all about the classroom;” and myth 3 claims “It’s all”

Myth 1, says the post author, results from the tendency to over-hype the potential educational gains from new tech; people expect an entirely new educational environment. This leads, says the author, to a failure on the part of educators to incorporate the new tech with the existing system which usually leads to failure and increased skepticism by these same educators of subsequent new tech arrivals. The answer, says the author is not to view new tech as disruptive but as a tool to improve present practices.

At RobotsLAB we believe our products are “hyped” as doing exactly that: improving present practices. Our BOX, for example, doesn’t attempt to fundamentally change the study of math, but only to make it more engaging for students. It allows teachers to present their own interpretation while displaying the algorithms at work in the real world.

As for myth 2, the belief that new edtech is “all about the classroom” when there is actually a great deal of very important software for more administrative requirements, we are willing to admit that RobotsLAB’s products are indeed “all about the classroom.” Our products are developed with teachers teaching students in mind rather than software helping administrators with hiring, teacher development and data storage. We make no apologies for that, although in the future we may decide to develop more administratively directed products.

Myth 3 says that some believe that technology is an end all unto itself. We at RobotsLAB don’t even begin to believe that! We think our robotic products are wonderful tools, but only in the hands of committed and trained teachers. We are well aware of the studies that have shown that the teacher is still the most important “school-based factor” for student achievement.

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Algebra curriculum enhanced by rubik cube

Posted by Mike Nardine

Oct 6, 2014 2:41:48 PM

Rubik cube helps teaching STEM

Our robots and their included curricula provide students with exciting, engaging experiences in the STEM learning disciplines. Notice the emphasis on the word ‘experiences?’ An ‘experience,’ according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (circa 1976),  is “something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.” Even better is the definition found for the verb ‘experience’ with a more modern-media Google search: practical contact with and observation of facts or events.’  That practical contact, that sense of personally encountering something otherwise thought of as abstract, is what our robots can deliver. No book, no blackboard and no lecture can hope to make concrete a abstract math concept as well as interacting with NAO, the BOX and MATHBALL.


Obsessed as we are with delivering students an experience that they will remember, we are always pleased to find someone else who understands the importance of engagement in learning. One such educator is teacher Sabrina Truong at  East Harlem high school. She recently discovered that the Rubiks Cube could  help kids learn algebra. She stumbled across a brochure announcing You Can Do The Cube at a educational science fair. She says she followed the brochures’ algorithms and solved the Cube for the first time in her life. That experience made her think that the Cube could be a source of inspiration for her math classes. She then found more interesting material at the site,, that helped her set up a curriculum based on the Cube.

Apparently Ms. Truong’s Rubik’s Cube curriculum for algebra class was a hit immediately with both administrators and students. The principal had this to say about this new initiative: This is the first real student initiative at the school. The students took one small idea and developed it into an extraordinary competition. I am impressed by the momentum that it has gained the last three weeks. One thing that stood out is this young man, Steven, who for most of the year was a truant and yet is here to help organize the event. Congratulations to the Rubik’s Cube Club.

Congratulations to Ms. Truong for her extraordinary commitment to her students math education and the same to her principal for his ability to allow a new, untested initiative to survive long enough to prove its worth. We hope the kids at East Harlem High realize how lucky they are to have teachers like these!

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