Professor Harry Asada Awarded a $2 Million Grant to Develop Robotic Educational Tool, “Teach-Bot”

Interactive robot will teach workers about manufacturing robotics through a hands-on instruction and demonstration

In early October, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker celebrated National Manufacturing Day at UMass Amherst by awarding grants through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2). “These awards will ensure the Commonwealth remains a leader in advanced manufacturing to spur job growth and train students for valuable career opportunities,” said Governor Baker.  Among the awards was $2 million in funding for Teach-Bot, an interactive robot that educates and trains manufacturing workers on robotics.

Founded by professor of mechanical engineering and Ford Professor of Engineering Harry Asada, Teach-Bot is a table top robot outfitted with actuators, sensors, and embedded systems. Connected to the MITx online learning system, Teach-Bot can teach manufacturing workers about various aspects of robotics; how a robot is constructed, and how it can communicate and coordinate its actions with others. Furthermore, Teach-Bot can analyze learner input data and alter its instructions to better fit the learner in response to this data.

The initial idea for Teach-Bot came out of Asada’s conversations with Vice President for Open Learning and professor of mechanical engineering Sanjay Sarma. Sarma stressed the need for a new teaching modality that focuses on how the hands and brain work together to create a more robust learning experience. This emphasis on hands-on learning inspired Asada to explore better a teaching methodology for robotics.

“The shortage of skilled workforce and qualified instructors who can teach robotics is  hampering the manufacturing industry,” says Asada. “The solution is to rethink the way we educate manufacturing workers about robotics.”

Developing a new education model required lots of research and resources. Asada collaborates with the MIT Office of Digital Learning and the Teaching and Learning Lab to develop a new teaching methodology that would engage with older learners who already have workforce experience, but are lacking in basic engineering training and advanced skills.

At the core of this new teaching model is seamless integration of physical interactions, instruction, and demonstration. Teach-Bot speaks as well as demonstrates – giving the learner both verbal cues and hands-on experience through touching and interacting with the robot’s various parts. These three educational components became the foundation for Teach-Bot. From there, Asada and his team began to explore the various lessons Teach-Bot could teach – everything from actuators and encoders to interlock, feedback, and sensor-based control.

Asada also hopes that Teach-Bot changes workers’ perception of robots. “People are concerned about losing manufacturing jobs to robots,” explains Asada. “But by working side-by-side with robots and sharing task load with them, the workers can find a way of improving their performance through effective use of robots. I hope that the workers find it an opportunity.”

The three-year award from M2I2, called the MIT/Northeast Regional Robotics Innovation Collaborative (RRIC), will be managed in partnership with MassRobotics, an independent, Boston-based non-profit that acts as a hub for education and innovation in the robotics sector. The first two years of the program will focus on outreach in Boston and Cambridge, with expansion to the Worcester-area in year three. The project will work to develop and deploy Teach-Bot to help drive training of experienced manufacturing workers, to arm them with new skills to deploy, program, and maintain collaborative robots in the workplace.

The potential Teach-Bot holds in enhancing worker education and promoting job growth is what attracted M2I2 to the project.

“A major driver of the M2I2 program is to create jobs within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through technology development, collaboration, and education, but also to increase training in advanced manufacturing skills,” said Ira Moskowitz, Director of Advanced Manufacturing Programs at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which oversees M2I2 with the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “Teach-Bot promises to train existing workers with little background in robotics, enabling them to take advantage of new, higher-skilled jobs within this rapidly evolving manufacturing landscape.”

The next step in Teach-Bot’s development will be to get approval from the national Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. Asada and his team will then spend the next three years developing Teach-Bot and deploying it in workplaces around Massachusetts and beyond.