Library teaches programing via robot in Peters Township

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Perched on a pair of wheels beside Sean McFarlin’s computer is a robot with bird-like features and a white outer shell. The McMurray Elementary fifth-grader stared at his computer screen, gazing up periodically at the robot driving in circles across the tables of Peters Township Public Library.


“It’s easy,” McFarlin said, referring to the program he was using to control the robot’s movements and make it light up.


Despite only a few days of practice with the program, McFarlin, 10, is one of many youngsters learning the basics of computer programing through the Finch robot. The Finch is a product of Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab. The workshop develops versatile products to educate the public about computer science.


Among their projects is the Finch, which teaches more than a dozen coding languages used by programmers at various levels.


Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies LLC and developer of the Finch robot, aimed to create a universal educational tool for future computer scientists.


Research for the Finch began in 2006. Lauwers and his development team released a pilot three years later, then tested the robot with area teachers and students at Community College of Allegheny County. By 2011, the Finch reached the commercial market and was eventually sold to nearly 500 organizations worldwide.


“We’ve sold to libraries, education institutions, museums and schools,” Lauwers said, “from elementary schools up to four years colleges.”


According to Lauwers, Peters Township Public Library was among the first libraries to purchase the robots in early July.


Pier Lee, the library’s director, is thrilled to host 20 new Finch robots, especially for the use of the Titanium Titans, Peters Township High School’s robotics team, which is sponsored by the library.


“We think it’s very important to give (the team) variety,” Lee said.


The robots are available to the library’s cardholders for checkout.


“We treat each bird just like a book,” Lee said. “That makes it simple.”


Roy Wang, 16, and Gregory Oleynik, 17, both seniors at Peters Township High School, tinkered with the robots for several weeks.


“They have a lot of potential, depending on how advanced you want to get with them,” Wang said.


Despite prior programming experience, the Finch is unique to anything the students have ever worked on.


“This is the first (robot) I’ve worked with that’s been prebuilt,” Oleynik said. “I’ve built some of my own, so it’s been pretty neat seeing other (robots) that are built for other people.”


Another benefit that Lauwers said is exclusive to the Finch is the robot’s attachment to a computer via USB. This saves users from wireless connection issues and provides the ability to access features with their own computer, a capability that is essential for the robot’s success at the library.


“It makes it so that there are no batteries and (it’s) still very interactive,” Lauwers said. “If you insert one line of code, it immediately reacts.”


Cardholders have flocked to the library to check out the robots.


“I am very happy to see the reactions like Sean’s. He just had (the Finch) for a couple days, and he cannot part with that bird.” Lee said with a grin. “I can tell he’s going to be an inventor someday.”


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