- Mixed Biological-Robotic Systems
- Multi-Robot Coordination and Swarming
- Smart Materials
- Journal Club
I first came across using debates in the class room to stimulate reflection over technical content in the class Robotics: Science and Systems taught at MIT by Daniela Rus, Seth Teller, Nick Roy and others. In these debates, student teams prepare pro and contra arguments for a statement of current technical or societal concern.
I adopted the debate concept in my Introduction to Robotics class, which is about to conclude its second iteration, and proposed the following debates to teams of 3-4 students:
- D1: Robots putting humans out of work is a risk that needs to be mitigated.
- D2: Robots should not have the capability to autonomously discharge weapons / drive around in cities (autonomous cars).
- D3: Robots do not need to be as cognitive as humans in order to be useful as making the environment intelligent is sufficient.
- D4: Robots need to be made differently than from links, joints, and gears in order to reach the agility of people
As the debate statements have led to ambiguous interpretations in Spring (leading to student groups both defending a “Pro” position), I provided explicit formulations of each statement, starting the sentence with a “Yes” or “No” and including “does”/”does not” where appropriate.
The students are instructed to make as much use as possible of technical arguments that are grounded in the course materials and additional literature researched by the students. For example, students can use the inherent uncertainty of sensors to argue for or against enabling robots to use deadly weapons. Similarly, students get the ability to relate the importance and impact of current developments in robotics to earlier inventions that led to industrialization when considering the risk of robots putting humans out of labor. For instance, students can argue by relating robotic innovation to earlier innovations in factory automation and their impact on society, stimulating far reaching and deep discussions. In almost all the cases, rebuttals and discussions following the Pro and Contra statements led to the emergence of a consensus among the students and a differentiated position.
After a positive first experience in Spring 2010, I surveyed the students of the Fall 2010 iteration of the class. Unlike the MIT class, which consists of multiple weeks of debates, I propose four debate topics during 2 weeks at the end of the class, serving as a capstone experience that complements the presentation of the course project and a written exam.
Overall, I consider the resulting debates a success. Some of the student teams did a great job in pulling example robot systems from the literature to support their argument, and presenting their work also gave those students that are weaker on theory an opportunity to shine. Despite extensive research by some teams, very few of the students used explicit technical arguments. For instance, a strong arguments against the statement D4 is that the ever increasing sampling rate of sensors and computational power has led to manipulators that can simulate any desired dynamics, for example to behave like a spring-mass, using high-speed sampling and force control. Although the students tended to show systems that take advantage of these developments, e.g. “Rollin’ Justin” or ”Big Dog” showed in lecture, they did not identify the underlying technology that enables them. This requirement should be made more explicit in further iterations of the class.
The quantitative perception of the students to the debate format have been generally positive. I asked the students to respond to a series of statements using the terms “Strongly disagree”, “Disagree”, “Neutral”, “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” using Surveymonkey.com. Two solicitations via email have led to a response rate of 18/26 or around 70%.
This is the data in the order the questions where asked.
|strongly disagree||disagree||neutral||agree||strongly agree||Response
|help me to improve my presentation skills||0.0% (0)||5.9% (1)||41.2% (7)||47.1% (8)||5.9% (1)||17|
|prepare me for questions that engineers face from society||0.0% (0)||16.7% (3)||11.1% (2)||55.6% (10)||16.7% (3)||18|
|fundamentally changed my opinion on a topic||11.8% (2)||23.5% (4)||52.9% (9)||11.8% (2)||0.0% (0)||17|
|are relaxing||0.0% (0)||27.8% (5)||27.8% (5)||38.9% (7)||5.6% (1)||18|
|let me better understand the technical content of the class||11.1% (2)||16.7% (3)||44.4% (8)||27.8% (5)||0.0% (0)||18|
|should be part of every class / introduced early in the curriculum||0.0% (0)||29.4% (5)||41.2% (7)||23.5% (4)||5.9% (1)||17|
|should be replaced by a more in-depth treatment of the technical content||5.9% (1)||35.3% (6)||35.3% (6)||11.8% (2)||11.8% (2)||17|
|should take less time||11.1% (2)||27.8% (5)||44.4% (8)||5.6% (1)||11.1% (2)||18|
|should allow for more discussion||0.0% (0)||11.1% (2)||27.8% (5)||55.6% (10)||5.6% (1)||18|
|reflect up-to-date issues in research and society||0.0% (0)||11.8% (2)||17.6% (3)||29.4% (5)||41.2% (7)||17|
The questions were targeted at shedding light on three specific aspects: relevance of debates for the engineering profession, learning experience, and overall format.
While there is agreement that debates help to prepare for the engineering profession by improving presentation skills, prepare engineers to think about questions posed by society, and reflecting up-to-date topics, the debates seem to have little effect on changing the student’s actual opinions on a topic (only 2 students say so). Students are also kind of indecisive about whether the debates actually helped them to better understand the technical content of the class.
Yet, students find the debate concept reasonably important to keep it over a more in-depth treatment of the technical content of the class, and disagree that debates should be devoted less time in class. However, the students are indecisive, whether debates are important enough to merit early consideration in the curriculum or should be part of every class.
Concerning the overall format, students find that discussion came short in the 75 minute lectures with 2 debates each. With 10 minutes per position, this left around 15 minutes discussion time per debate, although including rebuttals. Also, students tend to agree that debates are an opportunity to decompress (“relaxing”), which is desired as this period of class coincides with wrapping up the course project.
I feel that debates are an important learning tool that provides complimentary skills to theory and exercise work. It is unclear, whether debates make sense in every class, but I feel the format to be particularly adapt to classes with broader scope such as robotics or AI. Having to present in class, hearing and arguing about a position completely opposite to one’s own, and thinking about the broader impact of science and technology are important skills that should be encouraged early on. These benefits are understand as such by a majority of the students, who had little expectations to the format at the beginning of the class, which is exemplified in the following comment:
“I was not excited about the idea of a debate when I first heard about it. However, once we got going with the debates, I found it to be fun and interesting. It’s great to hear compelling arguments on these issues that could go either way. I really enjoyed the discussion within the class as well. This was also a great opportunity for me to practice my presentation skills.”
A drawback of the debates in their current form is the lack of technical depth, which might make them prohibitive in a course with already compressed content, where lack of time and the rather limited contribution of the debates to understanding of the course work, make the debates prohibitive. I believe this can be partly remedied by adding more structure to the assignment by providing 1 or 2 key papers for each topic that provide technical content to support one or the other argument as well as pointing out relevant lecture slides that debaters should recall to the class to support a specific argument. In order to reserve more time for discussion, I plan to forgo the rebuttal phase in the next iteration of the class in favor of a cross-examination of the presenters by the class.
Videos from the debates are available via CAETE:
Videos from the debates are available via CAETE: