Robotics in Yerevan and Cambridge: A Panel Discussion


Panel participants: l to r, Sue Cusack, moderator; Alisa Stepanian, CYSCA President; Vahagn Poghosyan, Instigate, Yerevan; Michal Gordon, MIT, Cambridge; Barbara Bratzel, Shady Hill School, Cambridge; Dan Monahan, Cambridge Public Schools; Ethan Danahy, Tufts

Panel participants: l to r, Sue Cusack, moderator; Alisa Stepanian, CYSCA President; Vahagn Poghosyan, Instigate, Yerevan; Michal Gordon, MIT, Cambridge; Barbara Bratzel, Shady Hill School, Cambridge; Dan Monahan, Cambridge Public Schools; Ethan Danahy, Tufts

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — An Armenian robotics specialist was one of the speakers in a Lesley University panel discussion on April 21 called “Reading, Writing and Robotics: The Future of Education?” Lesley and the event organizer, the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA), presented the event, with the co-sponsorship of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

Vahagn Poghosyan, the young and energetic cofounder and chief technology officer of Instigate Closed Joint Stock Company (CJSC) and Instigate Robotics CJSC, visiting from Yerevan, provided his perspectives on the role of robotics in Armenia. Poghosyan has a doctorate in computer science from Yerevan State University, and has founded multiple startup companies, such as ProximusDA, Amtokay, Instigate Mobile, and Instigate Robotics. The latter develops educational and industrial robots and provides solutions for industrial automation.

In addition to Poghosyan, there were four local speakers on the panel: Barbara Bratzel, a science teacher at the independent Shady Hill School of Cambridge; Ethan Danahy, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University and Engineering Research Program Director at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts; Michal Gordon, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, with a doctorate in computer science from Tel Aviv University of Israel, is now working on visual and natural interfaces for programming social robots by young children; and Dan Monahan, a K-8 science instructional coach in Cambridge for the past nine years, who previously was a math and science teacher at the Cambridgeport School.

In Cambridge and surrounding areas, middle and high schools have competitions and programs in robotics, while area universities provide outreach programs, but robotics is not fully integrated into all educational levels. While there is no doubt that Cambridge appears fairly advanced for the United States, Armenia has made rapid strides in this field since 2000 (see Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, “Teachers, Businessmen, Robots and Youth United to Rebuild Armenian IT,” Mirror-Spectator, November 7, 2014). There are robotic clubs in public schools and competitions among 5th-12th grade students. Robotics kits and lab programs help students learn how to build robots and do computer programming.

The panel discussion provided a comparative approach to robotics instruction. Barbara Cusack, an assistant professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education and co-leader of the Kennedy-Longfellow/Lesley University Partnership, served as moderator. The panelists were asked seven general questions.

They defined robotics in education as a way to teach a wide range of ideas, not just engineering skills, and approaches to problem-solving. Poghosyan said that in Armenia there was a controversy over what age to introduce robotics. The government distributed tablets to first-graders, but Nairi Lab wants teachers not to give robotics lessons to students prior to fifth grade. However, if lessons will be after regular school hours, only interested students would attend.

When asked to describe some students’ activities that were exciting or unusual, Poghosyan mentioned an eighth-grader who left school to box, and broke his hand. He lived in a village and asked if he could go to the school to warm himself. He started playing on a computer and ended up creating an amazing robotics game. Another child in a village was helped by the entire village to make a robot.

The panelists were all in favor of teacher training workshops. Poghosyan said two years ago with fundraising he was able to bring teachers from 60 schools to training workshops. Many of the panelists also were in favor of international connections and partnerships, including with industry.

Poghosyan felt education in Armenia had to be retaught. His conclusion was that practice should precede theory. Other subjects must be used, things created and problems solved.

The evening concluded with some questions for the panelists. The next evening, at a reception at the home of Jack and Eva Medzorian (the latter is member of the CYSCA board of directors and its past president), Poghosyan provided further information on his work in Armenia. He spoke about the growing importance of drone production. His goal is by nurturing technologies like this in Armenia to provide challenging and well-paying jobs for new generations of Armenians, who will not have to go to other countries for similar opportunities. These new types of industries are global in reach, and international clients can contract with Armenian companies for services. Armenian companies can often provide high quality creative services at very competitive prices globally. Meanwhile, private industry is taking the lead in Armenia in fostering training of students at international levels in new and rapidly growing technological fields.

The author thanks Alisa Stepanian for providing information and the panel photograph for this article.