It’s no secret that STEM education is an essential part of any student’s repertoire of skills and knowledge. Being familiar with any (or all) of the collective fields of study—science, technology, engineering, and math—can open up job opportunities, help them navigate a world increasingly reliant on technology, and aid them in anything from creative expression to finding solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
One of the most important aspects of teaching STEM education is utilizing the right tools for the job. One person who knows this intimately is Keith Young, founder of the Detroit-area-based STEM company Kinvert. With lifelong interests in technology and teaching, Keith has seen just about everything in the traditional STEM educator’s toolbox—but has taken a decidedly different approach for his own classes.
Keith recently integrated Code Lab and the SDK into his company’s course offerings. We took some time to chat with Keith about his personal history, starting Kinvert, and why he thinks Cozmo is a unique and effective education tool.
Anki: Hi, Keith. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Keith Young: Hi, Kaiser! Absolutely. Since a very early age, I’ve had an intense interest in how things work. Believe it or not, there’s a video of a one-year-old me trying to figure out how one of my mechanical toys worked. When I was about eight or nine years old, I started to take on neighborhood jobs like mowing lawns and raking leaves to buy a RadioShack electronics kit.
As for robots specifically, it wasn’t until I was around 13 years old when I received my first one. Remember, in the ’90s, there weren’t many affordable robots like there are today.
Eventually I went to college where I studied and received degrees in both mechanical and aerospace engineering. During that time, I worked on some funded robotics research, in addition to simulation work related to the compressor stages in jet engines. I also took part in various events including Baja SAE, Design/Build/Fly, and an IEEE robotics competition in which our team won (I was responsible for the computer vision code). We won the next year as well, but since I had already graduated, I helped via Skype meetings and securing sponsorships.
What was the catalyst for starting Kinvert, your STEM-focused education company?
While I’ve always loved helping others learn, there’s one moment that I can tie directly to the creation of Kinvert. My family would have dinner together every Sunday during which my nieces and nephews—who were 6, 8, and 10 years old at the time—would often ask questions like, “Why is the sun hot?”
” I was able to captivate children enough in polynomial math that they turned down cake and ice cream. “
During one Sunday dinner there was a birthday, and I decided to teach them the math behind projectile motion. To my surprise, they were so engrossed by it that when their mother called them for cake and ice cream they replied, “Can we eat it later? We’re learning math.” I couldn’t believe it. I was able to captivate children enough in polynomial math that they turned down cake and ice cream.
Later that evening, I immediately started preparations to hold tutoring sessions to see if the experience with my nieces and nephews was a fluke. As you can probably guess, it wasn’t—people loved my tutoring sessions. That gave me the confidence to head out to Maker Faire Detroit with my pitch. I signed up my first full semester of students from a lead and the rest, as they say, is history.
Being personally interested in a topic and teaching it are very different things. What would you say came first, your love for robotics or being an educator?
Interesting question! To be honest, it’s a little difficult to answer. My first reaction is to say robotics, but as mentioned earlier, I’ve always loved helping others learn as well. Even before Kinvert was created, I would teach kids about everything from electronics to dinosaurs. I think I’m going to have think about this a little more…
You’ve recently started offering courses that use Cozmo and the SDK. What drew you to the platform? How does it differ from other platforms you’ve used in the past?
When I first heard about Cozmo, it was his personality that really drew me in. Secretly I hoped that he would also be programmable. Then the SDK announcement came, and while I was delighted, I was also pretty skeptical given that most other “programmable robots” in the market have a very limited API. Some are little more than a glorified remote-controlled car. I assumed Cozmo would be the same.
As I learned more about the SDK and realized he was programmable in Python, and there was access to his camera feed, I completely flipped out. That’s when I called you and kept rambling on about how amazing it is to be able to use third-party libraries such as OpenCV, Keras, NumPy—basically everything.
” Cozmo is in a different league in many ways, from personality to student engagement to software potential. “
Most run-of-the-mill STEM robots offer nearly zero technical depth. We don’t teach with some of the most popular STEM robots for this reason. In my opinion, educators need access to sensors which can drive meaningful decisions in code. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, the most meaningful programming available among other robots is line following and turning when sensing a color.
Cozmo is in a different league in many ways, from personality to student engagement to software potential. The decision to use Python for the SDK is also a huge plus because the syntax is much easier than, say, C, which some other robots use. There’s also all of the amazing third-party libraries as mentioned earlier. We’ve also found that girls in particular love using Cozmo when compared to other platforms, which we think is great.
What do you teach using Cozmo at Kinvert? Can talk about some of the other types of activities you use Cozmo for?
We use Cozmo in quite a few ways. At Kinvert we use Code Lab and the SDK to teach both coding and robotics to K-12 students. We’re also in the middle of developing an online course focused on the Cozmo SDK. In addition, we’re planning a summer robotics competition using Cozmo.
Beyond these, we use Cozmo at a host of other events as well including birthday parties, Boy / Girl Scouts events, at libraries and public schools, and more—any place we can help people who are interested in STEM education learn more about it.
Cozmo is really great for these events because of how engaging he is. Kids are quickly able to figure out how to do things like stack his cubes in Code Lab, and as noted earlier, we’ve found that females are really drawn to him. Recently three students who are teenage female cheerleaders told us, “We thought this class was going to be boring.” And of course, it wasn’t. They’re already talking about taking more classes with us next semester! We’ve actually noticed an increase in female sign-ups for our robotics course overall since using Cozmo, both in number, and as a percentage of the full roster.
We’ve heard similar feedback from just about every educator when it comes to engagement. Can you elaborate on your personal experience a little more?
Here’s a story for you. Last fall we wanted to test the idea of a Cozmo course before officially offering one by simply letting students try the Cozmo SDK in our then-current robotics class. We had just finished our 3D printing class, and even though it was time for those students to go home, they all excitedly ran over to where Cozmo was being unpacked for the robotics class which was about to start. Students were engaged just seeing him.
” Cozmo is like a magnet for students and their attention. “
Some of the students who were already familiar with Cozmo asked, “Isn’t he just a toy?” They were quite surprised to find out that he was fully programmable. We’ve already heard students in our non-Cozmo courses talk about taking them next semester.
Cozmo is like a magnet for students and their attention. It’s magical watching their attention span increase as soon as they start learning with him.
You teach to students across the K-12 age spectrum. In your opinion, at what age do you feel students are generally ready to learn programming using Python?
We talk about this very subject on our site, but in general, we feel that students can start learning Python as soon as they can read and type. Of course, a six-year-old student will need more assistance than a teenager, as the latter can use Google to find answers to questions.
How Python is taught needs to be different depending on the student as well. When teaching younger kids, you really have to understand the content as an educator to be able to break things down like for loops in a way they can fully grasp.
What was your approach when developing your Cozmo curricula? Do you have any advice for other educators who are looking to create their own?
We have a project-based curriculum at Kinvert. This is effective for us because we know exactly what level our students are at in terms of the material, and are able to determine what the next challenging-yet-achievable project will be that encapsulates the required learnings. The online class we’re developing for the Python SDK will be a little different than our in-person courses.
As for advice, we typically might suggest looking at curricula for other robots. But Cozmo is a different animal. He isn’t a gimmicky robot that just drives around, so getting inspiration from a curriculum based on such a robot isn’t helpful.
Cozmo really is new and unique to education because of his vision capabilities. Even when compared to other established robots that have seen a host of improvments over time, Cozmo is really powerful. Because he isn’t a line follower, and he isn’t something you spend time physically building, it’s difficult to find suitable inspiration from other platforms.
To be honest, it’s a lot of work developing a curriculum, and there just aren’t any real shortcuts, especially for a new, unique, and very powerful platform like Cozmo.
You mentioned in one of our chats how critical it is that young students learn about coding and robotics. Can you talk a little more about this?
Think about a cause that is near and dear to your heart. It’s almost certainly the case that STEM can and will benefit it. Want to find a cure for cancer? Having a team of coders, data scientists, and other STEM-related experts will help you reach that goal.
Part of our mission at Kinvert is to help people have the best options in the future when it comes to making a positive impact, solving social issues, and looking for employment. Developing STEM skills is critical to this, and the earlier one starts the better.
Have you considered expanding Kinvert’s offerings to help other educators less experienced in STEM?
Definitely. In fact, we already do so in some ways. For instance, we’ve helped schools set up maker spaces and pick which technologies—such as robots—to teach with. We’re preparing to do a lot more of this type of work soon as we believe our passion, experience, and knowledge of STEM and education puts us in a unique position to help others.
” …we believe our passion, experience, and knowledge of STEM and education puts us in a unique position to help others. “
STEM is part of our DNA, and our approach to teaching it is unique, from the hardware we use to topics we cover. Our approach comes from my many years learning the material on my own, working through all of the issues, and understanding the sticking points. This is why we were able to successfully teach Python and microcontrollers above the Arduino level to 6 – 13 year olds on day one—and it’s why we’re able to help other educators as well.
Any last words of wisdom for our community of students, parents, and educators?
Educators will want to make sure they make use of the various official resources available such as the SDK documentation, YouTube channel, and community forums. They will be helpful in developing any sort of curriculum, as well as simply learning about what’s possible with Cozmo, Code Lab, and the SDK.
For parents, we recommend getting your kids to use Code Lab strategically, not just as entertainment. And if you’re a student, try to focus on meaningful and challenging projects when programming Cozmo in Python.
Cozmo has incredible potential to change STEM education for the better. The combination of high engagement from students and technical depth is unparalleled. Cozmo is a relatively new platform with technologies that others simply don’t have, such as computer vision. Educating others on such cutting-edge topics with Cozmo may take some time if you’re a newcomer—but stick with it and you’ll find it incredibly rewarding and well worth it.
Kinvert — Head over to Kinvert’s official site for more information on its Cozmo course offerings, contact info, and blog posts.
Using the Cozmo SDK in Education — Code Lab, in conjunction with Python SDK, make Cozmo a flexible education platform that scales from K-12 all the way through postgraduate research and beyond.
Getting Started with the SDK — Get more info on the SDK as well as links to installation videos, technical documentation, and more.
Getting Started with Code Lab — New to Code Lab? Get an overview on what Code Lab is and how it can be used in education, as well as info on how to submit your projects to us.