Reviewed by Tracy M. Scott
Like it or not, robots are becoming more integrated into our lives. Over the last fifty years the technology has advanced so much that robots now assist human workers on assembly lines, help perform complex surgeries in healthcare, and even take over common chores like vacuuming (hello, Roomba!). My family has always been interested in robots. One of the kids’ favorite DVDs to watch was a NOVA special called The Great Robot Race. We were very excited to check out the newest temporary exhibit Robots + Us at the Science Museum of Virginia.
As you enter the exhibit, you encounter a life-size robot seated at a table with an empty stool. Perfect for a photo op, he has a friendly smile that welcomes you to the world of robots. Next, challenge a giant robotic arm in creating a shape using tangrams. I was not successful at beating the robot one-on-one, but there is an option for two people to compete against the robot, which gives us humans the upper hand. The robotic arm takes a bow after completing his tasks, and picks up its tangram pieces and puts them all away (much to the delight of parents). My son returned to this a few times during our visit, he really enjoyed the competition between human and machine.
Several exhibits give a fun look at how technology, engineering, and biological science all come together in different kinds of robots. Videos of Kismet, the sociable robot created by MIT, as well as what were considered the most sophisticated robots of the fifties show the many advancements in robotics over the last fifty or so years. Hard to conceptualize is the robotic mouse that needed a church organ-sized computer system to have it navigate through a simple maze.
Hands-on activities include a robot arena and a specific area for creating your own robot and then testing it out on different surfaces. This was our favorite part, as we designed different robots and tested them on an incline, uneven surfaces, AstroTurf, and even a large hamster wheel with a speedometer so you can see how fast your robot can move. There are instructions for creating a few different robots, or you could use your own creativity to make a robot that may (or may not) work. In the robot arena, visitors control a robot using a flashlight and some foam blocks. The activity is on a timer to make sure everyone gets a chance to control the robot.
Robots + Us is great for all ages, I saw a toddler working with his dad to create a robot, and some preschoolers were amazed by the sensory garden that uses sound, light, air, and motion to control colorful robotic flowers. The older kids can definitely appreciate some of the more sophisticated activities and parents appreciate that kids explore STEM topics while having fun. The facial recognition camera is hilarious. I haven’t really laughed in a science exhibit but this one has a couple opportunities for a good giggle, even from the adults.
At least an hour is recommended for this exhibit, as there are so many hands-on opportunities to explore. Robots + Us is included with Museum admission and runs through September 29. More information is available at smv.org or by calling 804-864-1400.