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Can Robots Reeducate America?

Craig Shelden is a believer

Craig Shelden’s two-car garage is his refuge from the world. From this lair, he runs his spare-time robotics business, Shelden Robotics. The two family vehicles are parked outside the double doors.
    Inside is neatness and order. A garden rake, trash can and recycling bins are the only clues to a family life beyond the closed door. Blue and red electric tape strategically stuck to the floor in circles and rectangles measures robotic achievement.
    As a kid, Shelden loved Legos. At 43, retired from an engineering career as a Naval submariner, he rediscovered Legos, and the parts of his life meshed.
    “I started with the Lego NXT Kits in 2006, as soon as they came in from Denmark,” says Shelden. Lego NXT Kits develop into robots.
    Son Daniel was his excuse. But Dad was the one who played with the kits, claiming its “educational benefits.”
    With three motors enabling movement forward and backward, left and right, Lego NXT is customizable to many purposes and lessons. Shelden made robots to “go the distance” following behavioral clues in shapes like octagons and polygons. Hence the tape on his garage floor. His robots can bounce, follow light sensors and respond to speed controls. They can even escape confinement.
    They’re pretty cute, but they look more like miniature Mars Rovers than R2D2 or Wall-E.
    By 2009 his robots were spoiling to show off their stuff.
    He found competition at his children’s school, Barstow Elementary in Prince Frederick. Wendy Bowen’s fifth graders — including Daniel — and their able robot won the 2009 College of Southern Maryland Robotics Challenge Junior Division competition, Power Puzzle.
    “Bowen opened the doors for everybody,” Shelden says.
    But one robot was not enough for 20 students. The optimum ratio for robots to human is 2:1, Shelden says. “The synergy and teamwork are there with that kind of ratio.”
    In the gap, he saw opportunity.
    Shelden Robotics opened for business in 2010 at the annual Robot Fest at the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum Heights.
    Shelden’s kit robots give kids more learning opportunities, more hands-on time with robots and programming and more fun learning.
    The robots are fun, but they remain a means to an end, Shelden says, “by drawing kids into problem solving and engineering more deeply and enthusiastically than another page of math problems.”
    Shelden Robotics rent each LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits for $30 a month. They are scalable, meaning you can add more parts to make a robot do more work.
    Shelden’s robot kits are lowering entry costs for STEM education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by renting educational robots at reasonable rates.
    His day job keeps him working for the Navy as a civilian. Beyond a living, he says he “gets insights into technology from around the world and that drives me even more to help the folks working STEM education efforts.”