College of Science and Engineering
Associate Professor Shima Okada
Interview date: October 20, 2020
New class formats and research styles created by the COVID-19 pandemic
How have your online classes been?
In the spring I taught two lecture subjects. I spent a great deal of time recording videos to upload every week.
It was my first time teaching online, so I had some hesitation, but insofar as I had to create the videos, I wanted to make my classes enjoyable. With that in mind, I asked students for their feedback on my lecture videos.
It just so happens that one of my students wants to be a YouTuber, and he gave me a lot of advice. For example, he told me that students would never watch a 90-minute video, so I prepared several shorter videos and added sound effects.
The students told me the videos were easy to understand, so I was glad I worked hard on them.
Have students’ attitudes toward learning changed?
It feels like there are a lot of students who are taking a positive approach and thinking about what exactly they can achieve amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The signature course in the Department of Robotics is Robot Creation Lab, where students actually get to build robots.
The theme for this course differs every year, so for 2020, I set the theme as overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic with robotics. Based on this, my students identified the difficulties that people are facing because of the pandemic, and they issued a wide range of proposals aimed at resolving those problems with robotics.
For example, bottles of disinfectant spray are everywhere now, but they are mostly kept on high stands out of the reach of children. This led one of my students to come up with the idea of a robot that can raise and lower a stand to match the height of the user.
In my final class, I plan to have each group present their findings in a five-minute video. I am excited to see what kind of videos they come up with. Recently, I am seeing more people use videos for presentations at academic society meetings and international conferences.
With this in mind, I think giving students the experience of using technology and their own ideas to create appealing videos will be helpful for them in the future.
It seems many of your students were extremely motivated in class. Did you notice any changes in their research?
In terms of research as well, I think my students were more proactive than usual. In my lab, there are students researching "Biosignal Art", which turns biological signals into music.
I told them to make the most of this situation to give something back to society, and in just about one month, they developed an online app that helps people stay in shape while at home.
The development was primarily led by the students, but we also involved professors from two of my joint research partner institutions, the Tokyo University of the Arts and Juntendo University, and the staff of Ritsumeikan’s Research Office.
I was really surprised by the dynamism of my students.
How will the relationship between robots and humans change?
What impact is the COVID-19 pandemic having on the field of robotics?
One of the biggest changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is that people now avoid contact with each other.
This is why robots are gaining attention as surrogates for humans. From delivery to medical care to nursing care, movements were afoot to replace human work with robots in various situations, but there was little recognition of the need for robots.
Many people were resistant to robots because they valued human warmth, but the situation has changed completely due to COVID-19. Now the most important thing is not to infect people or involve people if it is not necessary, so some people are starting to think that it might be better to use robots.
In this way, as people are getting closer to robots, efforts are being made to bring robots closer to people.
One example of this are the inflatable robots that we are researching here at Ritsumeikan. When you hear the word robot, you typically think of something made out of hard metal, but these inflatable robots consist mostly of soft air pillows.
When combined with a technology that can reproduce human body temperature, we will be able to create robots that are even closer to humans.
It seems that people’s values are changing significantly due to the change in lifestyle.
It feels to me that the pandemic can alter society as we know it. The same can be said for the biosignal art research that I mentioned earlier.
Under the title of “Bright Future for All Ages with Health Innovation by Daily Exercise,” we are conducting this research as part of the MEXT Center of Innovation Program.
One of the barriers we faced was how to change people's behavior and encourage them to exercise. Now that a new lifestyle has taken root, however, the habit of exercising at home is becoming more widespread.
In this way, I think there are signs of change in places where we have previously faced challenges. I would like to use this project as an opportunity to link our efforts to positive change without overlooking such things.
What can we do right now?
How should we live our lives while the virus is still with us?
Due to the pandemic, the world is in chaos, so the top priority in terms of both research and daily life, is to alleviate your most immediate worries.
It is important to focus on the present while thinking about the future after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. They say the pandemic will lead to a new normal, but this has not happened yet. It will take shape going forward.
The world of the future will be completely different, so what shape do we want it to take? I think we need a clear vision, and we need to focus on research that will help us shape our world.
How should students think and act amid this backdrop?
As I always tell the students in my lab, it is important that you learn how to identify problems on your own. It doesn’t matter how small something may be.
The essence of engineering is creating things that can help people, so I hope everyone will keep this in mind. Once you enter the real world, you will need to be able to identify and solve problems.
With all the problems laid bare by the pandemic, it is the perfect time for students to turn this predicament into a learning experience and an opportunity for growth. When major social transformations like this one occur, the need for new technologies emerges.
I want our students to learn how to seize these kinds of opportunities. Some say we have already developed technology to the fullest, but there are still many things that we can do.
Associate Professor Shima Okada
Affiliation: Department of Robotics, College of Science and Engineering
Areas of Expertise: Medical Systems, Applied Health Sciences, Perceptual Information Processing / Intelligent Robotics, Affective Informatics / Soft ComputingMORE INFO
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