Sunday, May 4, 2014

Robotic ants for language practice

Photo from BBC website
The BBC news website has an interesting article about robotic ants developed in the United States that behave like a real ant colony. Their collective behavior helps robotic engineers design systems that work in a similar fashion to an ant swarm. This news item can also be found on many other websites - many of which present the article from BBC - but I particularly liked this article for its useful language features.

Link to article:

The article has the features of process description that I assign my students to write in their own process descriptions:
  • what is the innovation?
  • what is it for?
  • what does it look like / what is it made of?
  • how does it work?
as well as including various features that make the information more accessible to a non-technical audience. I feel that the ability to describe an aspect of technology to a lay audience is very useful for my students' future professional careers.

Several examples from the article that illustrate this:
  • ...robotic ants that they say behave just like a real ant colony
  • ...their collective behaviour is remarkably ant-like
  • ...just like an insect swarm
  • This is because, like ants, the robots leave a trail that others follow
  • ...along their route, leaving a "breadcrumb trail" of lights...
  • (The robots each) have two antennae on top, which are light sensors.
  • The classic example ... is the way in which we design information networks to move packets of data around. Ants don't have someone in charge telling them where to go, so you can (mimic this). For instance ...
Since the innovation is compared to real ants, there are many examples of comparisons in the text. Examples include:
  • just like
  • the robots leave a trail ...; while ants leave a trail ...
  • got brighter every time
  • exactly the same mechanism as ...
  • Because ants taking the shorter path travel faster, ...
  • ...which has already been used in...
There are several verbs used to report what people said, and I like students to notice these so that in their own writing they don't keep using the verb "say" (he said, they said). While the article uses this verb a number of times, it also uses report, explained, see, describe.

Finally, there are very useful collocations that I want students to notice and record in their vocabulary records, so that they can use these word partnerships correctly in their own writing and in presentations. A few that I've highlighted for them:
  • equip with
  • enable to move
  • move forward toward
  • avoid obstacles
  • (move) through a network
  • take cues from
  • leave a trail
  • set up
  • connect to
  • etc.
In addition to the article, there is a useful video (1:58 minutes) that describes both the robot ants and the process of their behavior. The narrator speaks at a very good tempo for students to understand, but is not a native speaker. The same video is also available on youtube:

Video on youtube:

The work my students did with this article was not only useful for their language skills, but was also very interesting for them. They particularly liked watching the video, first with the narrator's description, then with the sound turned off so that they could describe what they were watching in their own words. The students agreed with a biologist who is quoted in the article:
  • "And these things look pretty cool, too."

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