Make Room For Robots In South Korean Middle Schools

For more than a decade, South Korea has been a pioneer in the use of robots to aid teaching. Now, the country will offer middle school classes in robotics.

At a robot olympiad in South Korea
Benoît Georges

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."

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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