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Informal Engineering Education: Understanding How Seventh Grade Students Build Robots To Mimic Specific Desert Tortoise Behaviors

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Women in K-12 Engineeering & Outreach Programs

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.735.1 - 15.735.19



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Paper Authors


Tirupalavanam Ganesh Arizona State University

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Tirupalavanam Ganesh, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Engineering Education at Arizona State University. He has degrees and experience in engineering, computer science, and education. He has brought this experience to bear in previous research that examined the use of technologies in K-12 settings with diverse students. He has worked with the Children’s Museum of Houston on the development and implementation of Robotics-based STEM programming for urban youth. He is the Principal Investigator of the National Science Foundation Award# 0737616, Learning through Engineering Design and Practice.

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John Thieken Arizona State University

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John Thieken, MEd., is currently a high school mathematics teacher at the Paradise Valley School District and a doctoral student in the PhD in mathematics education at Arizona State University. He has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Northern Arizona University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Old Dominion University. He is currently involved in doctoral research (Learning through Engineering Design and Practice, National Science Foundation Award# 0737616) where he engages in research methods, measurement, data analysis (quantitative and qualitative), curriculum design, curriculum implementation, and sustainability.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Informal Engineering Education: Understanding how Seventh Grade Students Build Robots to Mimic Specific Desert Tortoise Behaviors Introduction

This paper describes the implementation and results from the study of a novel teaching and learning experience in informal K-12 Engineering Education. The experience was embedded in a technology centered discovery-based afterschool program designed and delivered to 116 seventh grade students. Participants were expected to take part in the afterschool program for two-years, beginning in their seventh grade, thereby providing for an in-depth year-round experience. This effort is part of a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored project under the Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. Middle school students took part in a long-term in-depth afterschool program over two-years that included both school year and summer experiences where they engaged in a variety of technology-rich project-based challenges. Site selection met the NSF ITEST program objectives of targeting underrepresented populations in the STEM fields. A purposeful selection strategy was used to select cohorts from four middle schools in the greater Phoenix area in Arizona. The project was launched in 2007 with cohort 1 (n=48) drawn from two schools. In 2008, cohort 2 (n=68) drawn from two other schools was added.

Research efforts reported here focus on studying the impact of a Desert Tortoise thematic unit. This thematic unit was the first experience in the students’ two-year long engagement with this project. Students were charged with creating a desert tortoise simulation and a realistic desert tortoise habitat. Desert tortoise simulations were created using Lego Mindstorms NXT, while the habitats were constructed from existing landscapes, household materials, and common art supplies. In this paper we describe strategies used to access seventh grade students’ understanding of the natural sciences related ideas of desert tortoise behaviors and the direct relationship of these ideas with their notions of what was necessary to build a robot to mimic those behaviors.

To accomplish the overall challenge, students studied the behaviors and habitats of the desert tortoise. Students had access to live desert tortoises that were brought to their classroom where they could examine the tortoise and its behavior first-hand. Students also had access to a herpetologist and botanist during a field trip to the local zoo where they visited the desert tortoise exhibit and the Sonoran Desert trail to understand the tortoise and its habitat. Students were introduced to Lego Mindstorms NXT kits in small teams of two. They were provided with time to explore the materials on their own. Subsequently, they were introduced to programming via initial exercises that then led to small-project based challenges. These challenges were designed to include the use of sensors and the related programming skills to effectively use the sensors in their robot designs. Students were provided with time to iteratively design, build, program, and test their robots. The criteria for desert tortoise robot design included the use of at least one sensor from their choice of temperature, touch, sound, or ultrasonic sensors. Students were not precluded from using more than one sensor. As a part of the overall project-based challenge, students needed to figure out how their desert tortoise robot would move—with legs or wheels, with the use of motors and gears.

Ganesh, T., & Thieken, J. (2010, June), Informal Engineering Education: Understanding How Seventh Grade Students Build Robots To Mimic Specific Desert Tortoise Behaviors Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16968

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