Learning with Legos

In one computer science class at IC, students build robotic animals, machines, and weapons -- with Legos. But that doesn’t mean it’s all child’s play.

“It’s problem solving very rigorously,” says computer science professor Patricia Woodworth, who created Introduction to Robotics Using Legos and has been teaching it for over three years.

Students work in groups using Lego Mindstorms NXT programmable robotics kits. After getting instructions on how to both build and program various objects, students try to make dogs that can walk, machines with arms that sort different kinds of bottles, or robots that can travel down a hall and enter every third room.

Being methodical and using logic are encouraged. “You have to be right to get what you built to work,” says Professor Woodworth, “which leads to more careful and structured thinking.” One wrong move in the assembly process and the team might have to go back to block one.

Art major Josh Turk ’12 knows this all too well. “At first you program what you build, and it doesn’t work,” he says. “So you have this really cool structure” -- in this case a dog he and his team built -- “and you want to get it to work.”

But Turk enjoys this trial-and-error process to solving problems. And when his team finally figures out how to make the dog walk, “it’s really cool,” he says.

Once they’ve mastered the basics, students use their imaginations to come up with new robots to build.

“It’s a nice mix of creativity and logic,” says writing major Ben Swiatek ’10. “There is a lot more freedom with building objects than I expected.”

Natasha Wu ’13, a biochemistry major, couldn’t stop thinking about her project. “I thought about what to build and how I wanted to program my creation outside of class,” she says.

Over the years, students have made a slot machine, weapons that fire Lego pieces, and a robotic arm with sensors that can sort out different-colored Legos.

The coolest object Woodworth has seen built by one of her students was a cuckoo clock. The central brick, which all Lego pieces are connected to and which stores the programming, was used to power the analog motor that made the hands of the clock move. The brick was also programmed to digitally display the time on its screen in unison with the analog clock.

Because Intro to Robotics fulfills the math and formal reasoning general education requirement many students are required to take, the course attracts both humanities and science majors.

Woodworth embraces this. “It’s really useful for anybody to have experience programming computers,” she says. “There are so many objects with embedded computers” -- online games, websites, vending machines, cars -- and they all need to be programmed.

Woodworth thinks the course is valuable even if students don’t ultimately become programmers. “It teaches the care you have to take with solving the problem instead of hacking your way through something,” she says.

Toward the end of each semester, students showcase their creations during Math Fun Day, a Saturday program open to children from local elementary schools.

Five-year-old Liam Dunne’s favorite activity there: “Robots.” Along with the remote-control Lego-mobiles, he was especially impressed by a robotic scorpion whose tail snaps up over its head and strikes an object it senses in front of it.

“He would poke me in the shoe,” says Liam. “I could have whacked that scorpion when it was attacking me.”

So it turns out the course does involve some child’s play.

Originally published in Fuse: Learning with Legos.

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