Ph.D Thesis

Ph.D StudentGamer Sergei
SubjectSpatial Learning and Insight into Robotics through
Practice in Programming and Operating Robotic
DepartmentDepartment of Education in Science and Technology
Supervisors PROFESSOR EMERITUS Igor Verner


There is a growing acceptance of introductory engineering courses, which combine studies of basic concepts with practices demonstrating real problems. Studying engineering systems in universities differs from training technical staff to operate industrial systems. Students are interested in understanding the principles of robot programming and operation, and in developing generic skills and abilities that are required in different work places. Among the most important is the ability of spatial vision. Studies in spatial cognition in STEM education suggest that spatial skills can be developed through learning practice, and that digital technology environments can facilitate effective training in these skills.

Industrial robotics laboratories, as an important part of engineering courses, generally offer learning practice in hands-on, virtual, and remote environments. Spatial training in robotic environments involves various types of spatial reasoning. This study proposes and explores an approach to develop students' spatial skills by engaging them in practice of programming and operating robot manipulators. It was carried out in the Cognitive Robotics Laboratory of the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management (IEM).

The goal of the study was to develop and explore an approach to learning the principles of robot operation combined with training spatial skills through practice in programming and operating robot manipulators. The research questions were:

1. What are the characteristics of the laboratory environment that support the development of spatial skills and interest in robotics?

2. Whether the learning practice of high school students in programming and operating robots contributes to their advancement in performing spatial tasks?  If so, what is the contribution?

3. Whether the practice of novice IEM students in programming and operating robots contributes to the development of their awareness of the importance of spatial skills? If so, what is the contribution?

To provide the proposed experimentation, we customized the laboratory setup: unified workspaces of available robots, designed virtual robotic cells, and developed robot manipulation tasks with oriented blocks. The educational study applied quantitative and qualitative methods.

We examined outcomes of the proposed practice for two categories of learners: 304 first-year Technion students participated in the robotics workshop as part of the introductory IEM course; 30 tenth graders majoring in mechanical engineering at a vocational high school took an outreach course in our lab. With regard to the latter, the comparison of the students' performance of spatial perception, mental rotation, and visualization tests before and after the course indicated significant gain in the performance of spatial tasks. For most of the Technion students the workshop aroused interest in industrial robotics and awareness of spatial skills required to program and operate robots.

The theoretical contribution of our research is that it shows the possibility of developing spatial vision skills together with exposure to robotics basics through learning experimentation in a robotics lab. The practical contribution of the research is that the proposed approach has proven its efficiency. The robotics workshop has become part of the course of Introduction to Industrial Engineering and Systems Integration taught to all the students of the IEM faculty.