Peters library offers programming robots for residents to borrow

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Michael Hsieh might grow up to be a computer programmer, he said.

He has experience with coding using programming languages such as Scratch and Snap, which he learned in school.

“I'm pretty decent,” said Michael, 9, of Peters.

The fourth-grader is flexing his mental muscles courtesy of the Finch robot that he checked out from the Peters Township Public Library.

The gadgets, developed with technology from Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment, or CREATE, Lab, are designed to support computer science education by allowing students to use any of a dozen programming languages to develop interactive programs with the robot.

Users can code the Finches to move, light up and make noise. Each robot has an orientation sensor that detects when something is blocking its path and makes it change course, said Tom Lauwers, owner of Squirrel Hill-based BirdBrain Technologies LLC, which has sold Finches to hundreds of schools, including Springdale Junior/Senior High School, West Allegheny High School and Ringgold Middle School.

Pilot research was conducted at Community College of Allegheny County, he said.

Finches are in some libraries, but Peters Township Public Library is the first in Pennsylvania to offer the robots for borrowing, Lauwers said.

“The optimum market is schools and now more recently, libraries,” he said.

The robots garnered more national attention in May when the Chicago Public Library received 500 Finches donated by Google Chicago, making it the first library in the nation to have them available for people to take home.

Finch was designed at CMU partially by Lauwers, who commercialized the technology in 2011 once he earned his doctorate in robotics from the university.

Each Finch is tethered on a 15-foot cable that plugs into a USB port. Young children can work with the robot using a simple drag-and-drop system, and high school and college students can use programming languages such Java and Python, Lauwers said.

The key to mastering the Finch is control, Michael said.

“Maybe it does take a while for you to figure it out, but after you get some of the programming right, it starts to become very interesting,” he said.

Peters Township Public Library purchased 10 Finches about a month ago. It allows users to check them out like library books, said Pier Lee, library director.

“The library cannot stay as traditional books and audiovisual (materials) … people like to have more than just books,” she said.

The Finches, which cost $99 each, were purchased with money provided by Friends of the Peters Township Public Library, a library fundraising group, Lee said.

“As a rule of library service, it's important to have something for everyone. It's good to get kids excited about computer programming,” she said.

Two years ago, the library engaged in a partnership with the Creative Learning Collaborative, a parent group that supports science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning opportunities for children in the South Hills, founder Julie Ogburn said.

The collaborative includes a high school robotics team, the Titanium Titans, which will be developing curriculum with the Peters library's Finches. The team will offer coding classes for children in the library, and in partnership with Lee, it might be offered at local schools, Ogburn said.

“So we'll start with some curriculum or workshop materials for young kids and probably work our way up to more complicated coding for The Finch robots,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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