Robo-Sundae: The Experiment

Try it with your class

Photo on 2011-06-30 at 09.59

The concept of creating a “Helper Bot” as a class can be a great framework around which to build an engineering and design curriculum. This project should take place after the students have already been introduced to LEGO construction and programming. For an upper elementary or middle school classroom, we estimate a similar project would take between 8 and 10 ho

ur-long class periods—although it could easily be extended. The class as a whole would create one big, final product: groups of two or three would be in charge of one step of the process. Below is a possibility of what the lessons could look like. The lessons mirror the Engineering Design Process.

Lesson 1: Identify the Problem

  • Introduce the idea of a “Helper Bot.” Discuss the job of an engineer—to solve society’s problems and create products that make life easier. Introduce the Engineering Design Engineers find “messy,” vague problems (ex: How do you make an ice cream sundae with a robot?) and redefine them into clear, solvable ones. See the link at the top of the page for our problem definition process.
  • Decide as a class what task you are going to complete. Break it down into steps and assign each group one part of the process. Keep in mind that not every task works for about 12 groups—look for something with the potential for many steps (ex: sandwich maker, shirt folder, or coin sorter.)

    Setup 1

  • Make your “System Guidelines” that all groups have to follow to ensure all the stations work together. For the sundae maker, this was the track—each station had to deposit the topping in the same place:
    Setup 2
  • Make a decision about what the end result will look like. Is it an assembly line? How will the stations communicate with each other? Is there a “drive robot?” See link above for a few possible setups.

Lesson 2: Research

  • Discuss current ways of completing the task—what can be improved? What works well?
  • Have we seen similar processes?
  • Have each group decide on features for their station. A good way to do this can be a Need/Want chart—make lists of features you definitely need, and features that would be nice to include if possible.

Lesson 3: Brainstorm

  • Brainstorm different ways to fulfill your goals. Quickly prototype a few if there is time. Have groups draw and agree on their initial construction idea.

Lessons 4 through 7 (adjust based on class): Construction and testing

  • Discuss the importance of failing and redesigning. No idea is perfect the first time.

Photo on 2011-06-30 at 10.04Lesson 8: Sharing

  • Have each group present their solution to the class.
  • Assemble the “Helper Bot” and test it out. To start testing, make sure each station first works individually. Writing a simple test code (eg: perform task when I press this touch sensor) is the first step. Next test each one’s communication—does it “sense” the correct robot at the correct time? Lastly, test everything together.

There will definitely need to be changes throughout the testing process. Continue to stress that while the “first draft” of each station is done, the project may still need work. Putting it together is the hardest part. Spend the next few class periods getting all the kinks out.


The Robo-Sundae blog: sites.tufts.edu/robosundae

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The Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) in Boston, Massachusetts, is dedicated to improving engineering education in the classroom, from Kindergarten to college. The Center houses faculty, staff, and graduate students from engineering disciplines and the education department.

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