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Developing a Systems Engineering Activity for Middle School Students Using LEGO Robotics

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Developing Systems Engineering Curriculum and Programs

Tagged Division

Systems Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Aaron W. Johnson Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

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Aaron W. Johnson is a postdoctoral research associate at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. He received his Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014, where his research focused on human-automation interaction in complex aerospace vehicles. Aaron also obtained a master's degree from MIT in 2010 and a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 2008, both in aerospace engineering.

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Sara Willner-Giwerc Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

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Sara Willner-Giwerc is an undergraduate researcher at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. She is a student at Tufts University, where she is majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in STEM education.

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Paul T Grogan Massachusetts Institute of Technology Orcid 16x16

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Paul Grogan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Systems and Enterprises at Stevens Institute of Technology. He holds a Ph.D. degree in Engineering Systems (2014) and an S.M. degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics (2010) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.S. degree in Engineering Mechanics (2008) from University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests develop and study interactive modeling, simulation, and gaming for collaborative design of infrastructure systems.

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Formal education in systems engineering (SE) has grown precipitously in recent decades. SE education emphasizes teamwork and communication skills and takes a broad perspective on engineering to integrate knowledge across multiple disciplines. However, SE academic programs have traditionally focused on master's degrees and continuing education programs. Younger students can also benefit from SE education, as many fundamental SE concepts align with K-12 STEM educational objectives. SE topics provide an interdisciplinary opportunity to design and build while also considering tradeoffs in a collaborative activity, and knowledge of SE is also important for developing students' technological literacy.

We have developed an activity to teach SE concepts to middle school students using LEGO EV3 robotics. Students were challenged to design and build a "toxic waste disposal robot." Specifically, this activity sought to accomplish three learning objectives: 1) A system can be decomposed into subsystems, 2) Coordinate activities by communicating requirements and interfaces, and 3) Testing reveals problems and changes often affect others' work.

In the first iteration of our activity six students worked together on one robot. Pairs of students each focused on a different subsystem: a manipulator arm, the robot chassis, or the software. While students showed promising SE behaviors, this iteration was unsuccessful on multiple levels. The challenge was too difficult, and it kept students from connecting the SE learning objectives to the activity. In the second iteration of our activity, students were given a pre-built manipulator arm and chassis with software already installed. The focus was on integrating and modifying the two components to complete a series of challenges. This iteration of the activity was much more successful; students were able to complete the challenge in the allotted time, but not without thought and effort. Students also achieved the learning objectives, demonstrating an understanding of SE concepts and how they related to the activity.

In this paper we present details of the two iterations of our systems engineering activity and evaluate the successes and challenges of each. By presenting our entire development process we seek to emphasize important considerations for anyone developing a SE activity for K-12 students. We also present an initial qualitative assessment that shows students thinking about the systems engineering learning objectives during full-group discussions.

Johnson, A. W., & Willner-Giwerc , S., & Grogan, P. T. (2016, June), Developing a Systems Engineering Activity for Middle School Students Using LEGO Robotics Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26737

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