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Exposing Middle School Students to Robotics and Engineering through Lego and Matlab

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Robots and K-12 Computer Applications

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.583.1 - 23.583.14

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Paper Authors


Jeffrey Laut Polytechnic Institute of New York University

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Jeffrey Laut received his B.Sc. degree from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 2009 and his M.Sc. degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2011, both in Mechanical Engineering. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where for the 2011-2012 academic year he was a teaching fellow in their GK-12 program. Laut conducts research in the Dynamical Systems Laboratory, where his interests include controls and robotics.

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Vikram Kapila Polytechnic Institute of New York University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Vikram Kapila is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at NYU-Poly, where he directs an NSF-funded Web-Enabled Mechatronics and Process Control Remote Laboratory, an NSF-funded Research Experience for Teachers Site in Mechatronics, and an NSF funded GK-12 Fellows project. He has held visiting positions with the Air Force Research Laboratories in Dayton, OH. His research interests are in K-12 STEM education, mechatronics, robotics, and linear/nonlinear control for diverse engineering applications. Under Research Experience for Teachers Site and GK-12 Fellows programs, funded by NSF, and the Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative (CBSI), funded by six philanthropic foundations, he has conducted significant K-12 education, training, mentoring, and outreach activities to integrate engineering concepts in science classrooms and labs of dozens of New York City public schools. He received NYU-Poly’s 2002, 2008, and 2011 Jacobs Excellence in Education Award, 2002 Jacobs Innovation Grant, 2003 Distinguished Teacher Award, and 2012 Inaugural Distinguished Award for Excellence in the category Inspiration through Leadership. In 2004, he was selected for a three-year term as a Senior Faculty Fellow of NYU-Poly’s Othmer Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. His scholarly activities have included three edited books, six chapters in edited books, one book review, 51 journal articles, and 100 conference papers. He has mentored four doctoral students, eleven masters students, 25 undergraduate research students, and 11 undergraduate senior design project teams; over 300 K-12 teachers and 95 high school student researchers; and eighteen undergraduate GK-12 Fellows and 53 graduate GK-12 Fellows. Moreover, he directs K-12 education, training, mentoring, and outreach programs that currently enrich the STEM education of over 2,000 students annually.

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Magued G. Iskander P.E. Polytechnic Institute of New York University

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Dr. Magued Iskander is a professor of Civil and Urban Engineering at NYU-Poly. Dr. Iskander is a recipient of NSF CAREER award, Chi Epsilon (Civil Engineering Honor Society) Metropolitan District James M. Robbins Excellence in Teaching Award, Polytechnic’s Distinguished Teacher Award, and NYU-Poly’s Jacobs Excellence in Education Award (twice). Dr. Iskander’s research interests include Geotechnical modeling with transparent soils, foundation engineering, and urban geotechnology. He makes extensive use of sensors and measurement systems in his research studies. Dr. Iskander has published ten books, 100 papers, and graduated six doctoral students, 27 masters students, twelve undergraduate research assistants, and supervised the research activities of three school teachers and nine high school students.

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Exposing Middle School Students to Robotics and Engineering through Lego and MatlabUse of robotics in the K-12 environment is becoming increasingly common to introduce studentsto educational and career opportunities in engineering and technology fields. Moreover, severalrecent studies have shown the effectiveness of robotics-based, hands-on science and mathlessons vis-à-vis traditional classroom instructional practices. A wheeled mobile robot providesnot only a compelling hook to engage students’ interest, it also brings new meaning to classroommath and science concepts by connecting them to real-world applications.This paper considers a novel application of the Lego NXT platform and the RWTH-MindstormsToolbox for Matlab to create a series of classroom activities that expose and engage middleschool students in all aspects of controlling a differential-drive mobile robot. Lego bricks areused to construct a mobile robot consisting of two non-steerable, powered wheels, and one castorwheel. The mobile robot uses a bluetooth connection to transmit wheel rotation data to acomputer base-station running the Matlab program. An odometry model running on Matlab usesthe wheel rotation data to keep track of the rotation and displacement of the robot on a Cartesianplane. This hardware-software platform is used to create and implement several lessons thatillustrate real-world applications of concepts from middle school curriculum.In the first lesson, the relationship between wheel rotations, wheel circumference, and distancetraveled is derived. The effect of wheel diameter on forward velocity is assessed and the errorsthat may accumulate from the use of an incorrect diameter of the wheel are examined. Thestudents use their knowledge of wheel rotations versus displacement to measure the length andwidth of the classroom. Next, the notion of feedback control is introduced through a controllerthat enables the robot to move a commanded linear distance. In the second lesson, the effect ofcommanding one wheel to move slower than the other wheel is observed. This leads to thederivation of the relationship for turning radius and the velocities of the individual wheels of therobot. Next, a complete odometry model is studied wherein feedback from the robot encodersallows reconstruction of the robot’s path in real-time. Using a joystick interfaced to the computerbase-station, students command the robot remotely over the bluetooth connection while theodometry data is transmitted from the robot to Matlab where the path taken by the robot isplotted in real-time. By driving the robot along the perimeter of the classroom and aroundobstacles, an occupancy-map of the classroom is created. As a final lesson, the so called “parkingproblem” of the differential-drive robot is studied. The students are asked to think of a strategyfor the robot to autonomously drive from a start position and orientation to a goal position andorientation. A controller based on the kinematic model of the robot is implemented anddemonstrated in class. The robot takes the goal position and orientation as input, and usingodometry as feedback, smoothly steers to the desired pose. The performance of the feedbackcontroller is compared to manual control where students use the joystick to control the robot.The above set of in-class lessons, demonstrations, and activities illustrate applications ofmathematical concepts, primarily geometry and trigonometry, to solve practical problems inmobile robotics. Through these lessons, students see practical value in subject areas that mayotherwise appear to be abstract. The full version of the paper will include classroom assessmentof the aforementioned activities and recommendations for future work.

Laut, J., & Kapila, V., & Iskander, M. G. (2013, June), Exposing Middle School Students to Robotics and Engineering through Lego and Matlab Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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