As an engineer accustomed to working on large industrial projects, Thomas Man brings a lifetime of experiences and a unique perspective to his role as a robotics educator. Whether he is teaching students how to code a robot that moves with flashing lights or build a bionic elephant trunk that picks up objects; he believes that these workshops are not only a catalyst for creating STEM pathways for young people, they can also help to instil important life skills such as patience, problem solving, collaboration and curiosity.
“Back in 2016, I came to the realisation that it was starting to be more of a struggle to keep up with latest technology developments. Technology in the last few decades has changed so profoundly, and at such a fast pace that people can quickly become obsolete in their profession or field. I have always valued education as investment in the future and wanted to give something back by sharing my knowledge, especially with children and young people,” Mr Man said.
As a robotic educator, Mr Man presents Creative Robotics Workshops at Tonsley Innovation District that cater to five-to-eight-year-olds and nine-to-12-year-olds. He first became aware of the District, through his eldest son, who completed his robotics degree at Flinders University’s Tonsley campus. In March 2022, Mr Man took part in the Tonsley Science Fair, demonstrating a robot fish that moved in water and through this experience started holding workshops at Tonsley, a few months later.
Thomas Man showing works of his students
“Thomas’ workshops demonstrate our philosophy for Tonsley to be a place of driving positive impact for our society and addressing societal needs in the future. Seeing those kids highly focussed and determined as they refine the robot’s precision to achieve certain tasks fills me with great joy. You see the future workers of Tonsley in front of you,” Renewal SA Tonsley Precinct Director Philipp Dautel said.
Teaching technology is only part of what drives Mr Man. “Our educational robots need to be trained, and tamed if they go rogue, so the workshops are also a platform for students to learn patience and the ability to logically think through a problem, as well as for asking questions and working together,” he said. “Robotics education is ultimately about developing young people to be well-rounded and connected human beings through understanding the close relationship between AI, people, and nature.”
Mr Man also hopes that his workshops can provide a counterbalance to the ever-increasing influence of virtual worlds on young minds. “Life is more than a game that you live out onscreen and not everything happens automatically at the press of a button or flick of a switch. My robotics class is about learning how to make, and code, smart machines. This requires curiosity and collaboration from the participants and pushes their limit sometimes. For example, I teach students to program robots in Python language, which is currently the world’s most popular and user-friendly computer programming language and is particularly suited to young people. Students make mistakes – that’s part of the process – it’s about identifying what’s gone wrong and working out how to fix it. I like to say that in my workshops, students aren’t just using technology, they are doing technology. It’s not a passive experience,” he said.
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