Happy 10th birthday to Thymio, the teaching robot!

Le robot Thymio a trouvé sa place dans les écoles. © EPFL

Le robot Thymio a trouvé sa place dans les écoles. © EPFL

Originally created in 2011 at EPFL, there are now thousands of Thymio II robots rolling around in Swiss and French schools, as well as private homes. The technology offers a intuitive and fun introduction to programming. Starting today, EPFL will be holding a birthday hackathon in order to come up with new ideas for how Thymio can be used to teach the basic principles of artificial intelligence.

Imagine coding without even realizing you’re doing it. With Thymio, that’s exactly what you can do! This little teaching robot was created at EPFL 10 short years ago, and since then has performed admirably in its mission to teach schoolchildren about programming languages and about how computers think. “We picked the right time to launch it” recalls Francesco Mondada, academic director at the EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences, and affectionately known as Thymio’s dad. “Digital sciences first made their way into elementary education about a decade ago. Our robot provides a simple, intuitive, fun and non-gendered way to approach the subject.”

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that 74,000 of these robots have been manufactured over the last ten years! Over half of them are hard at work in Swiss and French schools, and in January, the Canton of Vaud announced that Thymio robots would be making their way into all elementary school classes to teach children from the age of six. “We’ve had wonderful feedback from teachers who’ve used them”, adds Francesco Mondada. The robots also grow alongside the children, and can teach and challenge them throughout their education. In fact, there are even courses at EPFL where Thymio robots are used as learning aids.

So why are they so popular? A lot of this is down to the simplicity and versatility of the design, created in partnership with the Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). Thymio only uses two motors (these power its wheels, but are also compatible with Lego equipment), and can communicate using sounds and colors, while also interacting with its environment through its five touch buttons alongside array of sensors used to detect proximity, movement, temperature and sound.

Most importantly, it also has developed, with ETH Zurich and then with support from the Gebert Rüf Foundation, a highly intuitive visual programming language (VPL) interface, allowing children as young as seven to immediately grasp the basics of programming. Programs can be built from blocks on the screen, and then sent to the robot so it can carry out the instructions in real life.

Thymio is distributed by Renens-based non-profit organization Mobsya, whose mission is, in the words of its CEO, Sandrine Prunière: “to allow everyone to develop curiosity and a critical mind regarding digital technologies by demystifying them and giving everyone the tools to master them”

Over its ten years, Thymio has built a considerable user base. The internet is full of videos, examples, stunts, and challenges that anybody can have a go at doing for themselves.

Starting this evening, and running until Saturday, several groups of fans will come together virtually for a “hackathymio” event. The goal is to imagine scenarios where Thymio robots can be used to help with understanding of basic concepts behind artificial intelligence. At ten years young, there’s plenty more to come from this little robot!

Author: Emmanuel Barraud

Source: EPFL

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