The Plan and the Reality 4: Research Task and Tallest Tower

This is one of a series of posts documenting my approach to teaching robotics in a year 11/12 Engineering Design class. The students are 16- to 19-year olds and we typically have three ~90 minute classes per week.

After a few weeks of hands-on robotics activities it was time to consider the question of “What is a robot?”. I asked the students to research a topic of their choice and prepare a class presentation based on their findings.

Robotics Research Task

The task: Select, and research, a particular robot (or particular robots) that demonstrates a general topic relating to robotics (or a type of robot), then create a presentation (e.g. PowerPoint, Google Presentation) about your topic. For example: “da Vinci – the surgical robot”.

Download: Robotics Research Task 2019 (PDF)

Da Vinci – Surgical robot
(image source:

Before giving the students this task, I usually lead a discussion about what is (and what isn’t) a robot. To explore this topic, I showed them images of some obvious and some not so obvious classes of robots, including:

  • mobile robots
  • factory robots
  • autonomous vehicles
  • biomimicry-based robots (e.g. Big Dog)
  • swarm robots.

For example, does something have to be mobile to be considered a robot? Students usually are happy to class a Roomba vacuum cleaner as a robot, but what about a photocopier? Or a microwave oven using a sensor-based reheat function? Automatic doors?

I asked the students for their definition of a robot and we compared these to some typical definitions, such as this one from Wikipedia…

“A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within.” (Wikipedia, accessed 7 May 2019)

Here are a few ways of thinking about this topic that I like draw on, depending on where the discussion leads…

Sense-Think-Act – This is a classic robotic paradigm provides a way of thinking about how a robot operates. Also known Sense-Plan-Act, it’s not the only approach, but it’s a starting point.

Anatomy of a Robot – Parallels with human anatomy:

  • processor (brains)
  • sensors (senses)
  • actuators (muscles)
  • power source (food)
  • structure (skeleton)

The “Three” Ds of Robotics – I originally came across this idea presented as three areas (dull, dirty, dangerous) in which robots are ideally suited. I’ve since seen this list expanded to a number of different Ds, including:

  • dull
  • dirty
  • dangerous
  • distance
  • dexterous
  • domestic
  • dear

After a few lessons to conduct their research, the students gave their presentations to the rest of the class.

At the end of the first week working on this task, I gave my students the following quick building challenge for a bit of fun.

Tallest Tower

The challenge: Using only your dominant hand, and working in pairs, build the tallest tower.

A selection of “towers”

I’ve framed variations on this challenge a bunch of different ways over the years. e.g.

  • Using only a given selection of pieces, build the most stable tower taller than a given height.
  • Using no more than 20 pieces from the top tray (or a particular selection of pieces), build the tallest tower.
  • Working in pairs, build a tower without talking to your partner (i.e. no verbal communication).

This year, I had a particularly competent builder in my class, so I gave him the added challenge of completing the challenge on his own, but still with only one hand. (-:

Once the time has run out, I like to highlight the following points:

  • towers are all different – diversity of solutions
  • importance of working with a partner – collaboration etc.
  • importance of testing/rebuilding/iterative prototyping – although, to be fair, not usually a lot of time for this in 20 minutes
  • hard fun
  • creativity
  • go and learn from others – e.g. to see how others use the pieces.

One of my favourite variations is to wait until we’re about half way through and then point out that engineers have to deal with changing constraints, and that the towers will need to be able to handle a moderate “earthquake” (e.g. the table being jolted). Yes, I’m cruel!

Also in The Plan and the Reality

This series documents my approach to teaching robotics in a year 11/12 Engineering Design class.

  1. The Plan and the Reality 3: Wave to the Distance
  2. The Plan and the Reality 4: Research Task and Tallest Tower
  3. The Plan and the Reality 5: Relay Race

View the entire series

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Rob Torok

I'm a teacher in Tasmania, Australia, and have been using LEGO MINDSTORMS with my students since 2001. I'm the editor in chief for LEGO Engineering (this site) as well as the content editor for LEGO Education Australia (

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