Just hours before the 2022 FIRST Global Challenge opening ceremonies at the Palexpo, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), in partnership with DEKA Research and Development Corp., unveiled the XRP (Experiential Robotics Platform) a new robotic platform that’s poised to be a game changer for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education pipeline for generations to come.
The XRP robots, still in beta form, are simple, inexpensive, easy to build, and just as programmable as a far more expensive robot. The XRP robots come with built-in educational and software support, and they are designed to operate autonomously, perform basic tasks, navigate on their own, sense distance, and manipulate their environment. Simple, tool-free assembly allows for a quick build and parts can be replaced easily with the use of a 3-D printer. When they come to market next year the 7″ x 5″, weighing less than 1 lb (17.78cm x 12.7cm, 0.45km) will cost less than $50.
“Robotics has proven to be extremely effective in stimulating interest in broad areas of science and technology across the entire range of student levels from kindergarten through college, but having access to affordable tools and sustainable support systems is often a barrier,” says Winston “Wole” Soboyejo, interim president of WPI. “The XRP was designed and created with that in mind, so more young people from around the world can partake in the exciting activity of building and programming robots. Our world urgently needs more STEM professionals and business leaders with differing experience(s), expertise, questions, and passions to labs and boardroom tables – only then will we be able to create, translate, and deploy new scientific insights and technologies that work for everyone.”
All 185 teams representing 180 nations at this year’s FIRST Global Challenge are given a free XRP to bring back to their home countries. The teams are challenged to share the kits with other schools or organizations who are interested in implementing or expanding robotics programs. With the kits, educators and students also get access to free online courses, created and supported by WPI, on how to build, program, and control the robot, which they can scale up using the same hardware with free software updates.
“We are at a critical time across the world when many of our most pressing problems, such as climate change, can be and need to be addressed by science and technology,” says Dean Kamen, a WPI alumnus and founder of FIRST Global and DEKA, who has been partnering with his alma mater to engage and inspire young STEM enthusiasts for more than 30 years. “The demand for this kind of talent is intense and having a global STEM workforce prepared for the future isn’t just a societal need, it’s good business. It’s also essential for every aspect of life on this planet that we continue to empower and encourage kids by joyfully engaging them in activities like the sport of robotics. This will allow the kids to understand their own potential to use science – and that of science and technology – to solve the world’s great problems.”
The actual idea to distribute an affordable robot kit around the world traces its origins to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when WPI students abruptly switched to remote learning in spring 2020 and FIRST needed to keep competitive robotics teams working together on various entries. Both needed to figure out how to get remote students small, relatively inexpensive robots to work on for hands-on experience. Eventually, WPI incorporated a commercially available robot kit that students could purchase and build at home into its curriculum. A similar version was then used in FIRST robotics competitions – one that was able to use WPILib software, which WPI created for FIRST in 2009. From there, WPI and DEKA Research & Development Corp. continued to work together to create the XRP and help increase the global STEM pipeline with support from an NSF grant through the Engineering For Us All (E4USA) org.
“The XRP will change the paradigm for hands-on robotics education around the world by dramatically reducing cost, expanding use, and enhancing curriculum support for teachers,” says David Rogers, DEKA’s chief development officer, who worked closely with WPI in developing the XRP platform.
Unlike other platforms that require several upgrades to adapt to higher levels of robotics education, the common programming language used in the XRP kits will also allow students to easily transition to more complicated projects.
“We considered every aspect of the design and materials to ensure it could not only function at a high level but remain affordable,” says Brad Miller, former director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center and senior fellow of WPI’s Global STEM Education Initiative. “To have a robot that weighs and costs less than a textbook – so potentially every student in a classroom could have one – was always our guiding light.”
“Being able to see the results of your code executed on a classroom robot is one way of maintaining and really encouraging this excitement and enthusiasm within what can be challenging fields with a number of roadblocks,” says Joe Doiron, director of WPI’s Global Lab and Global STEM Education Initiative.
In the coming months production will increase to provide additional XRPs as needed. In the meantime, WPI is announcing a larger STEM initiative at both the FIRST Global Challenge and XPrize Summit also taking place in Geneva this week. The new Global STEM Education Initiative leverages the university’s expertise and resources to help other countries and underserved schools in the United States provide high-quality, accessible K-12 STEM education. With the programming, activities, and support provided by this initiative, WPI will help educators around the world bring inspiration and possibility to their classrooms.
“If you dream big, even when you have very limited resources, the size of your dreams determines the scope of your impact,” Soboyejo says. “For me, just as important as getting kids excited about STEM, we need to encourage them to dream big and to surround themselves with people that encourage and nurture that dream.”