Underwater LEGOs
Train Young Scientists


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They're intuitive, easy, fun to use, familiar—and they inspire ingenuity. So why not harness LEGOs to teach robot design to aspiring young engineers?

That's the reasoning that led to an innovative curriculum at Stevens Institute of Technology's Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education in Hoboken, NJ. The concept, originating as an undergraduate project at Stevens, spawned collaboration between center staff and faculty of the multi-discipline ocean engineering department, which works on underwater robotics. Those discussions took the idea to a whole new level, recalls Mercedes McKay, deputy director of the center, established in 1987.

"We decided on LEGOs because they work perfectly for rapid prototyping. You can use pieces to quickly construct prototypes, test them, make changes, and re-test," says McKay, who spent a decade as a mechanical engineer in industry. The center's Waterbotics project "lets students be creative and innovative, which leads to a variety of robot designs," she's found. Students work in teams, to complete increasingly sophisticated design challenges.

Testing and Retesting

First, each team has to build a robot that goes across the water's surface of a kiddie-size pool (18 inches deep), as fast as possible. That helps them learn about torque, gearing and gear ratios. Once they succeed, the team modifies the same robot to do figure 8's on the pool's surface, making it move in not just a straight line, but in two dimensions. The next challenge is getting the robot to descend, then rise, in the water. "That requires adding different motors and more materials," McKay notes. "Importantly, they acquire good understanding of stability and buoyancy." The final challenge, "with a pretty well-functioning robot, is having it retrieve a wiffle ball underwater, and put it in a bin," she says. "They might need to design a grasping mechanism, for instance." The largest pool is 18 feet across, three to four feet high.

Students from elementary through high school are learning to design underwater robots, using LEGOs.

The project incorporates many mechanical engineering and scientific principles, says McKay. This isn't surprising: the Stevens Center is run by former mechanical engineers and scientists. They develop curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students, and train teachers and community college faculty to implement the programs. "We think the Waterbotics curriculum is a good blend of science, technology, and engineering. Participants learn not only engineering, but also programming for how to control their robots, and iterative design through the testing and retesting," she explains. Other skills the students acquire include brainstorming, systems analysis, and interface design.

A Teaching Tool

Waterbotics is currently in the third year of its second National Science Foundation grant, for five years. A major goal is to roll out the program nationwide, for after-school and classroom use. One grant partner, the National Girls Collaborative Project, is leading the effort to attract middle-school and high-school girls. Part of the center's research, explains McKay, is measuring the students' ongoing attraction to engineering and science. Preliminary results indicate higher levels of interest after program participation. "We expect that by the end of this second grant, we'll have reached over 5,000 students and trained more than 200 educators to use Waterbotics," she adds.

Usually, the entire project takes students about 25 to 30 hours. Those who attend the center's Waterbotics summer camp complete it in one week. Length of time to design the first robot depends on participants' LEGOs familiarity. By the end of the project, "The results really mimic all sorts of real-world applications for actual underwater robots, from water quality testing to finding sunken treasures," says McKay.

LEGOs might be a valuable teaching tool for undergraduate summer interns in various employment situations, she says. "Stevens engineering students help out at our summer camps," she notes. "It's very valuable for undergraduates because it gives them a perspective on how science and engineering concepts can be applied at earlier ages."

McKay suggests, "A degreed engineer may be interested in getting involved with Waterbotics as an outreach project with local students, or with their own kids. The program is really an introduction for middle- and high-school students." Starting with kindergarten, there's now a national effort to develop "Next Generation Science Standards." Mckay says that's important to everyone in the field, "Because these will include engineering as required content for students to learn. Currently, few states require engineering to be taught at the K-12 level."

Increasingly, today's engineers face complex, unusual and often unexpected new scientific challenges. The Center's underwater and robotics project, relying on LEGOs, is giving young students a hands-on sense of current problems engineers are trying to solve, and the kinds of contributions they'll be able to make if they pursue their education in the field.

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

We decided on LEGOs because they work perfectly for rapid prototyping. You can use pieces to quickly construct prototypes, test them, make changes, and re-test.

Mercedes McKay, deputy director, Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education

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November 2012

by Carol Milano, ASME.org