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Although our world isn’t quite like the Jetsons, we do now have robots and robotic setups involved in more areas of our lives – there are more robotic machines in manufacturing than there used to be, and with the idea of “smart homes” booming, there’s more of a chance that an “embodied” robot computer could pop up in our living rooms.

But what about a robot garden?

No, robots don’t “grow on trees,” yet, but a neat simulation aims to get kids more interested in how to build those robots of the future.

A new “robot garden” featuring dozens of ‘origami’ style LED-lit electro-plants has been unveiled at a recent Hour of Code event at Boston-area schools. The garden, a project of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory or CSAIL, is intended to foster a new sense of interest in America’s youth, in exploring what’s possible with computer science.

“There isn’t a lot of interest, especially from young girls, in computer science – not a great way for them to get interested.” says CSAIL software engineer Lindsay Sanneman in a youtube video of a garden demonstration. “The garden is a great way to teach some of these basic concepts in a visually pleasing way.”

Throughout the video, Sanneman explains a click-in tile system engineers use to manipulate plants, how buttons display distributed algorithms, and a process called “graph coloring” that deals with the proximity of various lighting colors across the garden table.

In describing the response from audiences, Sanneman says the project really has the potential to get students closer to the tech field.

“I had a couple of kids come up and ask me where they could get their own components to make their own robotic systems, and how to get started, and so it was really doing what we were hoping it would, which is inspiring kids to get interested in robotics and programming.”


What’s Inside

MIT’s robot garden isn’t just an educational tool – it’s also an example of how to use rapid manufacturing processes and brand new technologies for quicker rollouts of physical products.

The small “plants” operate on Arduino microcontrollers – Arduino is an “open” and very versatile platform that has been used to create all sorts of innovative products, for instance, in wearable technologies. Also, lilies, tulips and other items were made with “printable motors” – another exploration of the 3d printing craze that’s revolutionizing prototyping and product development.

“Many elements of the garden can be made very quickly, including the pouch motors and the LED flowers,” explains MIT researcher Joseph DelPreto, in an MIT news piece on the project. “We’re hoping that rapid fabrication techniques will continue to improve to the point that something like this could be easily built in a standard classroom.”

These kinds of visual projects help to break down programming into something kids and non-techies can understand, pushing the boundaries of how we allow technologies into our lives. So next time you want to fill a window-box, think about whether you want your flowers biological, or digital.

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