It is the year 2032. A meteorite has damaged a power station on Mars. Thankfully, there are 16 Thymio robots on site, ready to restart the main generator. To accomplish the mission, which runs until 11 June, 180 teams of students between the ages of 8 and 18, from all over the world, will attempt to program the robots located on the surface of the red planet – or at EPFL, to be exact. “This year, we’re running 12 missions spread over three weeks. Each one involves between 10 and 16 teams and lasts for three hours,” say engineers Evgeniia Bonnet and Karen Jones, who are leading the project – dubbed Remote Rescue Thymio II (or R2T2 for short, in a nod to Star Wars) – at EPFL’s LEARN Center for Learning Sciences.
This international educational project was launched in 2015 as a way to encourage students to take an interest in STEM projects (science, technology, engineering and math). In 2021, it brought together more than 700 students from all over the world. Indeed, a communication campaign initiated this year has made the project better known. “We’ve set up a website with all the resources that the teams will need to prepare for the mission,” says Bonnet, a former aerospace engineer. “We’re also on hand to help teaching staff if they need us, although they’re expected to have a basic understanding of robotics and to be familiar with how the Thymio robot works.”
Problem solving and confidence building
The tasks are deliberately not easy, so the students also need to be fully prepared for the mission. “This is a hands-on exercise in problem solving, computational thinking and teamwork,” says Bonnet. “The 30-second communication delay between Mars (EPFL) and Earth (the classroom), means the students have to think before they act. If they get something wrong, they won’t realize it immediately – and mistakes cost time.” And because the classes are working together rather than against one another, every action affects the entire mission, not just one team.
The participants, most of whom are between 10 and 12 years old, face a number of challenges: cooperating, being patient and communicating with speakers of other languages. Matilde Vianello, who teaches music, English and math at Nyon Léman elementary school, saw how her group of nine students rose to the occasion: “I run an optional, six-week Thymio course on Wednesday afternoons. The students who attended the first session were eager to keep going. So I suggested they take part in this mission. It was pitched at just the right level: not too easy, not too hard. What they found most difficult was reining in their impatience, thinking carefully about their strategy and running tests before issuing their instructions.”
Vianello’s group, mostly girls, formed three separate teams. “It was great to see the students growing in confidence and taking pride in their achievements,” she adds. “They also gained a lot from working with other teams. We took part in the mission with a team from Russia and they had to get organized to keep the communication flowing.” Vianello, who is largely self-taught after attending a one-day Thymio course in 2018, also learned from the experience. “The Mars Mission made me rethink how I plan step-by-step learning activities for my students,” she explains. “Tasks that include constraints – such as the communication delay designed by EPFL – really get the children thinking.”
Six key skills
Qualitative interviews were conducted with educators who took part in the R2T2 project. Commonly cited learning outcomes for students include collaboration, communication, computational thinking, critical thinking, creative problem solving and cross-cultural exchange.
Another widely reported benefit is that, because the mission is fun, students often forget that they’re learning. “This is a one-of-a-kind project that equips young people with the skills required for the 21st century,” says Jones. “Thymio makes robotics accessible to everyone. As a robotics engineer, I admit to having some initial doubts about its potential. I found it overly simplistic. But in fact, it offers a wealth of opportunities – and I’ve seen how it encourages my own children to be creative. Both the robot and this project are helping to inspire young people.” The Mars missions will be repeated next year and interested teachers will find all the necessary information on the project website.