published 6 Feb 2014 by Stefanie Rauchegger in Austria 5 minutes 43 seconds to read

Science 101: How to build a robot

When serious back pain forced 42-year-old Michael Sieb to quit his profession as a surgeon, the Tyrolean started completely from scratch. He had had previous experience in teaching engineering and thoroughly enjoyed it so it was obvious to start TiRoLab. His aim: spark children’s interest for mechanics, electronics, and IT through robotics workshops, and to make a future career in the technology branch more tangible for them.

TiRoLab Michael Sieb robotics workshops children social entrepreneurship Austrian startup CAST

“3, 2, 1, LEGO!” The wheels of six small robots start turning, dancing to the tunes of “Harlem Shake”. Twelve fourth graders and their families are watching the scene in the middle of the room in amazement. “Woah! They are totally going to crash,” one of the boys says as two robots collide. Laughter. The parents of the 12 boys look at each other with pride, hardly believing that their children have built their own robots in less than two hours.

“Michael, ours isn’t moving!” a blond boy says to a man in a light-blue shirt that reads “TiRoLab Judge” in white letters. As the founder of TiRoLab, Michael’s aim is to spark children’s interest for mechanics, electronics, and IT through robotics workshops, and to make a future career in the technology branch more tangible for them.

Rewind.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Innsbruck and it’s unusually loud in the hallways of the ICT building on the Technik campus of the University of Innsbruck. Excited boys’ voices are echoing from the modern-looking glass walls – 12 fourth graders are making their way to the second floor. They are carrying heavy-looking cases and laptops with blue stickers. The 10-year-olds are following Michael to a room with five table rows of which they occupy three. Although they don’t know each other, they are eagerly talking about their expectations of the course. “I want to build a robot so I can annoy my sister with it,” one of them says, smirking.

After Michael has set up his laptop and connected it to the beamer, he quietly stands in front of the room, watching the boys who have – as if magically, stopped talking. “Okay, listen up now!” he raises his voice, patiently. “We only have two hours so we need to make the most out of this.” Quickly, he forms teams of two and instructs them to open the cases and laptops. Again it gets loud, and Michael smiles.

A self-taught teacher

He is not a trained teacher – or at least he never had pedagogic background. Actually, he was pursuing a different career path in the first place. Michael studied medicine at the University of Innsbruck with the goal to become a surgeon. Since it had been a passion, he also studied electronic engineering, which eventually earned him two degrees – and two options. After a few years, the now 42-year-old suffered from spinal disk herniation, which forced to give up his profession as a surgeon. “I wasn’t able to perform surgery in the same position for hours anymore,” he remembers. “So I had to do something else.”

For a while, he was teaching courses on theoretical surgery, which combined both his interests. He thoroughly enjoyed passing on his knowledge to students. In 2011, Michael had the idea of giving workshops regularly; however, he wanted to teach the principles of electrical engineering to a broader group: to anyone between 5 and 105.

The idea for TiRoLab was born.

Best business model or best robotics lab?

In 2011, Michael and his TiRoLab concept participated in the adventureX competition and didn’t make it through the first round.  “The feedback was really demotivating. I was completely crushed, frustrated and angry,” he recalls. But – convinced of his idea – he didn’t give up. After important supervision from Christian Mathes and Bettina Specht of CAST Tyrol, he completely changed his business model.

“Christian was the first one who really believed in me,” Michael says. “He asked me what is more important to me: having the best business model plan or the best robotics lab.  Best lab - what else and so I started all over again.” 

In June 2012, he founded TiRoLab and again participated in the adventureX competition. He placed in the top 10. In the same year, he won the “Tiroler Innovationspreis” and took over the organisation of the First LEGO League in Tyrol, a global competition for children, who try to solve robotics-related tasks with the help of an adult coach.

Ever since, Michael has given some 60 workshops all over Tyrol. CAST Tyrol helped him with financing the equipment, from robotic construction kits to laptops.

Teamwork for the win

Back in the workshop, the boys are eagerly building actual robots from LEGO building blocks (yes, nowadays children build more than castles). Within ten minutes, Michael has introduced them to software that makes the robots move. Today’s objective: Make the robots dance to the well-known Harlem Shake. Michael is patient and determined, not actively trying to tell them what to do but letting them figure it out.
“Excuse me, sir. We’re stuck here,” a boy says after raising his hand.
Michael walks over to the team. “Stuck? Wow, your robot looks really cool!”

Usually Michael has both girls and boys in his groups, although he admits that there are always more boys than girls. It’s on his list of goals to change that. “It’s interesting to see the gender difference,” he says. “Girls are usually much faster because they are goal-oriented. Boys, on the hand, focus on the details and want to build the perfect robot.” Most of the time they want to achieve more than what time allows for. “Many expect to build a robot that can spit fire or have built-in chainsaws.”

Michael also found that teams of two are the best combination so one child can build the robot while the other one handles the software. “If you have three children in one group, there is always one child that is left out,” he explains. Unless the kids are still in kindergarten, he adds. “I really enjoy workshops with really young kids – they are not as competitive and very fair to each other.”

Expanding the lab

Besides the workshops for children, Michael is holding further training courses for teachers and provides them with publications on the topic. “I can’t do workshops for children at every school so I educate teachers and tell them how to build robots,” he explains. The next trainings will be in March. Teachers can then rent the robots kits at a low price from Michael for a semester. He just bought another nine kits for some 400 euros each, stocking up to a total of 21 kits.

At the end of last year, Michael received a Social Impact Start incubator stipend, with the goal to expand to Vienna. Right now he is looking for a space to rent so he can hold workshops there. “I won’t get rich with TiRoLab,” he smiles. “I think social entrepreneurs are very aware of that fact.” Watching Michael during his workshop, it’s obvious that he values a child’s smile over money. His contribution lasts much longer.

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