Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Tech-ed concentrating on robotics

VISION The abilities of Japanese students in maths and sciences have been falling in recent years and the government is determined to reverse the trend


Students at Tennoji High school huddle over a Transformer-like robot as they try to find a proper command to make it move during a robotics class in Osaka. The students are key players in Japan's new initiative called ``super science,'' a nationwide effort in public education to nurture future leaders in technology.


Ten teenagers anxiously huddled over a Transformer-like robot in a humble classroom are pioneers in Japan's initiative called "super science" -- a nationwide effort in public education to nurture future leaders in technology.

At a time when fears are growing that Japan is being overshadowed by the clout of China as well as increasingly successful businesses in other Asian nations, hopes are high for the program, which grants high schools money to fund their own original technology curriculum.

Japan, the world's second largest economy, achieved growth, modernization and affluence over the past half-century largely on the back of its manufacturing prowess, best symbolized in companies like Toyota Motor Corp and Sony Corp.

"But educators have noticed for some time that the abilities of Japanese students in science and math have been going down," says Hideo Tsuchida, one of the teachers for the robotics class at Tennoji High School.

The high school in Osaka, central Japan, will receive ?50 million (US$460,000) over three years in government money meant to produce technological whiz kids.

Japan has budgeted ?1.3 billion a year for the program, splitting the money between 82 high schools, which are using their grants to focus on rocket engineering, genetics and solar energy.

Robotics is one area where Japan is still among the world's leaders, says Shigeaki Yanai of the Japan Robot Association, a trade group.

The Japanese market for next-generation robots is expected to grow to ?1.5 trillion by 2010, and to more than ?4 trillion yen by 2025, according to the association.

At a recent class, the students in the high school's robotics course were grappling with the basic language of computer programming to make the robot move.

Almost the entire two hour-class was spent on punching in a series of letters and punctuation marks using Excel software.

One problem was that the two teachers were far from robot experts and were learning along with the students. An official from Japanese robot-maker Vstone Co Ltd was an invited guest at the class, but he was no education expert and his presentation was heavy on jargon. The students looked puzzled.

When the robot's arm finally moved a little, relief spread on the children's faces.

Yusuke Yamada, 17, said it was fun to work with robots, which were part of his growing up through popular animated series such as Gundam.

"Robots are about dreams," he said, adding he wasn't sure about his future occupation. "I want to make the robot do something spectacular, maybe make it dance."

Teacher Yoshikazu Oonishi hopes students' programming skills will improve by the end of the school year, to give them some understanding about artificial intelligence.

"If we get to the point the robot starts acting as though it's thinking, it'd be really fun," he said.

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